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Students across SA back Wits protest, but won't all take to the streets - yet

12 March 2021 - 10:31 By Nivashni Nair, Aron Hyman and Alex Patrick
Members of the EFF Student Council protest in the Johannesburg CBD on Thursday.
Members of the EFF Student Council protest in the Johannesburg CBD on Thursday.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

In the wake of violent protests at the University of the Witwatersrand this week, student bodies at other institutions have thrown their weight behind their cause.

At the University of the Free State, 24 students were arrested for blocking a road while protesting on Thursday.

Free State police spokesperson Brig Motantsi Makhele said Bloemfontein public order police were deployed at the entrance of the university after receiving several complaints about students blocking the road. They were expected to appear in court on Friday.

At the University of Pretoria (UP), the SRC joined in the #asinamali (we have no money) protest on Thursday. Though TimesLIVE was unable to get hold of SRC president Lerato Ndlovu to establish the full extent of their protest action, the organisation had declared that students would join in the Wits protest.

The announcement was made on Wednesday afternoon after the killing of bystander Mthokozisi Ntumba.

“The department of higher education & training, together with NSFAS, have chosen the criminal act of depriving students of education and meeting us with violence when we speak out!

“We, as students of the University of Pretoria, refuse to be victims of this injustice and blatant oppression of young people. We are now forced to act! Since the majority of our campuses are still closed, tomorrow we stand in solidarity with students from all institutions by marching to DHET,” said the SRC.

UP students gathered with others on Thursday at 8am and marched to the department's offices.

Meanwhile, University of KwaZulu-Natal SRC president Siyabonga Nkambako told TimesLIVE that there had to be engagement with management, as students would never be able to pay back 15% of their debt, as requested, before they could register.

“It's impossible, so this is financial exclusion,” he said.

Students embarked on protest action last month because “management is not taking us seriously”.

However, Nkambako told TimesLIVE on Wednesday that students would not embark on protests at this stage.

“I doubt we will end up with a situation that occurred at Wits. The university is engaging with us for now and we are working on solutions. We do not intend to participate in any violent protests,” he said.

The SRC also called on the university to extend registration as the online system was “not user friendly”.

At the University of Zululand, the SRC president-elect Nkosinathi Sibiya said students were vulnerable.

“What is happening is not a matter of the UniZulu alone, but a matter facing all universities in SA, because it’s a policy that is governing all students that was issued by NSFAS. So we are no different, but we are more vulnerable to this policy than other students.

“A lot of students studying at UniZulu are from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds and only rely on socials grants. NSFAS is making policies against the poor and working class. Only about 5% of UniZulu students are self-funded,” he said.

Sibiya said that in 2019, 400 students were deregistered because they could not afford the 50% upfront payment.

“We are poor. Where are supposed to get that money from?”

He said UniZulu students were not protesting but, like all other students in SA, they wanted to be heard.

“The minister of higher education and even the president must get involved,” he said.

UCT SRC president Declan Dyer said: “The students' representative council notes funding challenges faced by many students. As at February 25, approximately 2,500 students were facing financial exclusion owing to outstanding fees. Given the adverse economic conditions brought upon us by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effects of the lockdowns of the country, this number is unsurprising.

“Equally, uncertainty around NSFAS funding for first-time entering students is causing concern among students. This was furthered by the remarks of the minister earlier this week around the NSFAS shortfall.

“However, all first-time entering students will be allowed to register, regardless of whether NSFAS issues are resolved.”