Traumatised students speak out: 'Too rich for funding, too poor for studying'

Quit studies or hope for the best: As financial exclusion looms, thousands of students struggle to stay hopeful

15 March 2021 - 06:00 By Shonisani Tshikalange and Kgaugelo Masweneng
Students gather in the street to honour the memory of Mthokozisi Ntumba who was killed when police used force to disperse student protesters outside the Wits University campus in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. The protests were sparked by government plans to cut back on student funding.
Students gather in the street to honour the memory of Mthokozisi Ntumba who was killed when police used force to disperse student protesters outside the Wits University campus in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. The protests were sparked by government plans to cut back on student funding.
Image: Alaister Russell

As the SA Congress of Students (Sascoc) called for a countrywide shutdown of 26 universities this week, students spoke out about their pain and stress from #asinamali and #feesmustfall protests, with some saying they are close to giving up, while others are vowing to fight on behalf of those in need.

Faatima Laher, a former University of the Witwatersrand SRC member and LLB student, said though she has never experienced financial exclusion she joined to fight for a free decolonised education.

“I am privileged enough to say I have never had to face financial exclusion but this is why this is my chance to continuously fight for those that have been, because I simply cannot continue in a system that continues to oppress those who are black, those who are poor.

“I have never personally been put through that, so everyone should be in my position,” she said.

Laher said during her year as an SRC member, she witnessed too many students battle against too many odds.

“We have been fighting for free education for the longest time. And it was something that was in the Freedom Charter and it was something that was promised to students by the government. There was a policy that was supposed to be implemented in 2013 in regards to free education and its now 2021 and it has not been implemented yet.

“The issue always comes down to free decolonised education.

“It’s a fight we should not stop because education shouldn’t be something that excludes.”

I thought I had healed from the trauma of Fees Must Fall, but as soon as I saw what happened at Braamfontein, it took me right back to the dark and emotional place I once was in.
Student Yonela Ngaleka

For Yonela Ngaleka, 22, the protests and the murder of 35-year-old Mthokozisi Ntumba have triggered fresh emotions as she was also part of the #FeesMustFall protests which snowballed from 2015.

“I said I had healed from the trauma of Fees Must Fall, but as soon as I saw what happened at Braamfontein, it took me right back to the dark and emotional place I once was in.”

Ngaleka, a final-year BA student at Wits, was arrested in 2016 for her alleged involvement in torching a police vehicle and assaulting an officer during #FeesMustFall protests — an event that has delayed her life and academic studies for years.

Her depression, no money for fees, court dates clashing with classes and a ruptured appendix led to her forfeiting parts of 2017 and 2018. She only returned to campus in 2019 to finish her first-year modules.

“I had a panic attack on Wednesday when this happened, and my parents had to come home early from work because of that,” she said.

Her parents are now paying her fees from their own pockets.

“I didn’t get NSFAS because of the ’middle class’ thing. Too rich for funding, too poor for studying. I didn't qualify for financial aid because of my  parent's income.”

Bongani Shumba, a postgraduate student in African literature at Wits, said the protest on Wednesday was “quite painful as the police started chasing the peaceful protesters around Braamfontein and shooting at any gathering they suspected to be student protesters.

He previously received NSFAS funding, but not this year as he does not qualify as a postgrad.

“I see my fellow students struggling with funding and it’s a collective struggle.

“The protest meant a lot to me as a student as it demonstrates to everyone how inequalities lead to disadvantage, even for the most brilliant students in the country.

“Eight thousands students at Wits being on the verge of financial exclusion is not child's play. It’s your most essential professionals of tomorrow who are being halted to achieve their academic goals.”

I am now asking myself if I should quit or try and force matters of going to school and see what will happen.
Student Nobuhle Qwabe

At the University of Johannesburg, a few blocks down, fourth-year linguistics student Nobuhle Qwabe said her financial struggles have put her in a spot where she doesn’t know whether she should give up on her studies or keep trying.

She too joined the student protest this week.

“I am now asking myself if I should quit or try and force matters of going to school and see what will happen. This is a very difficult position I find myself in,” she said.

The 21-year-old NSFAS-funded student said she found out this year that she owed the institution about R27,250 as she has reached her NSFAS bursary limit.

“Now they want me to sign an acknowledgment of debt, a debt that is not even mine. Both of my modules need text books and I basically struggle to participate in my school activities.”

However, Qwabe said the institution was able to unblock her to register but her problem now was the study materials which required money.

“I still don’t know if I will be funded this year.”

Qwabe said her grandparents, who live in Johannesburg, were retired and her parents live in Mpumalanga where her father is the only breadwinner with side jobs.

“The fight for free education didn’t begin now, yet we are still fighting the same thing. More than anything, I am angry, I feel neglected by the very same government that we vote for.”

TimesLIVE


subscribe