Student Accommodation: Politics and Legalities

2014-01-09 16:37

Throughout my three years in Bloemfontein as a student I have been staying at a campus male residence, House Tswelopele, which, among many other privileges, offered more stability, more academic focus, more leverage of learning resources such as computer labs and a generally academics-inclined community of students—the oneness in academic comradeship—where the atmosphere of studying never fades away. Currently, I am the leader of the residence and sometimes when there’s a disciplinary case or just a random conversation, I always surprisingly discover that most of my residence mates who have been staying at the residence for more than two years haven’t read and understood their contracts.

Anyway, this season is known for its post-matric anxious excitement as scores of young people inundate various institutions of higher learning to pursue their studies. There are many factors at play throughout this noble pursuit of advanced education and preparation for economic deliverance. We have heard and witnessed the exhaustion of the 30% pass mark, the immediate jumping in from some political parties who bemoaned the quality in the quantity celebrated, and the supplications of those who lack the resources to further their studies.

During this period some cruel accommodation agencies will be making money out of desperate young people who are, in their majority, new to the city life. These are young people who are not really legally literate as far as contract interpretations are concerned. Beyond their illiteracy, there is also a factor of desperation involved, particularly given the need to find a space so that all other academic requirements can be attended.

At the time when I was working for my university's official student newspaper I received many scoops from frustrated students who claimed to be victims of student accommodation companies. There is one private accommodation company in Bloemfontein that has for many years been implicated in cases of injustices – students get fined for breakages they know nothing about, unreasonable fines are issued around, poor maintenance, safety concerns and other elements of tenant dissatisfaction.

I am convinced this is not a case exclusive to Bloem-based students.

More often than not, many of the problems facing students in student houses have their origins in the contract. Generally, we are not used to reading the contract from the first clause to the thinnest of all the lines. Most of us do not really engage the terms and conditions of any account or agreement we enter into, be it a social media account, clothing account or… student accommodation.

Student accommodation is an integral part of the overall student life. It therefore must be viewed as equally significant as all other commitments the student representative bodies in all institutions have. In fact, it deserves further attention from student law formations. Associations like Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ) and other faculty-based law movements should in addition to the legal and constitutional office of the SRCs take the battle upon themselves in ensuring that they help first-years with understanding what they are signing for. This can be done before first-years actually arrive on the campuses.

This is to then suggest for futuristic purposes that these law bodies familiarise themselves with contracts of most private accommodation agencies beforehand, scrutinise them, and then be empowered to offer advice to those poor students who always become victims of accommodation agencies.

I am fully aware that I may be accused of exaggerating the simplicity of this initiative, but all I am saying is that rather than only restricting student activism to protests and financial assistance, a struggle of this intellectual disposition may revolutionise the entire student activism fraternity.

Additionally, it could be a useful exercise for law students with a passion for the law of contracts. Moreover, law clinics that are instituted in our universities may develop interest in this form of student assistance, thereby intensifying the struggle against these crooked agents. I was at a certain time in my student leadership journey a Research and Education Coordinator in my university’s SLSJ branch and this is one fight I had hoped to bring into student governance. Although it didn’t come into being during my tenure, I still believe in its potential to make the walls of desperate students’ victimisation collapse.

A balanced student life is dependent on one’s accommodation.

Not understanding or reading accommodation contracts thoroughly is potent of ruining our student experiences.

The repercussions may not be immediate, but they are going to be inconvenient.

It may arguably be a generic human disorder to not read the fine print, but the suffering is inarguably specific to an individual.

It's time for student leaders to intervene.

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