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Fees protests to continue: here is what you need to know

16 March 2021 - 07:22 By unathi nkanjeni
A water cannon puts out burning barricades, 15 March 2021, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg during a national student protest against the exclusion of students with historical debt and free decolonised education.
A water cannon puts out burning barricades, 15 March 2021, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg during a national student protest against the exclusion of students with historical debt and free decolonised education.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

The national shutdown of the country's universities is set to continue until all the demands of the SA Union of Students (Saus) are met.

The decision comes after what the union described as an unsuccessful meeting with the minister of higher education Blade Nzimande and student representative councils from the country's universities.

The Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) is not joining the shutdown as its students have yet to complete the 2020 academic year.

Here is what you need to know:

15 demands to be met

Last week, the union shared a list of 15 demands that were supposed to have been met by Friday.

Among its demands, it asked the minister to clear all historical debt for all students, allow registration for academically and financially deserving students, no financial and academic exclusion, and a solid plan for missing middle student funding.

“Should Minister Blade Nzimande fail to respond positively to the list of demands, SRCs have given Saus a clear mandate to engage with Savetsa (union representing TVET colleges) and all student political formations in preparation for rolling mass actions and a national shutdown of all higher education institutions from March 15,” a statement read.

“As a student union, we can no longer watch while students are turned into criminals for fighting for free education — something that was promised by the state. Free education should not be a death sentence,” the union added.

Nzimande responds 

Responding to the demands, Nzimande said the department was “not in a financial position” to support the tertiary institutions in clearing student debt.

Nzimande stated that the department was aware of students whose families could not keep up with fee payments and those who had been affected by the pandemic.

“However, institutions also have to remain financially sustainable to continue to operate effectively, and financial decisions are made at the level of university councils.

“The historic debt of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) qualifying students is being addressed through a process between NSFAS and institutions. Nsfas-qualifying students with historic debt are able to register when they sign an acknowledgment of debt (AOD) form, while the process is under way,” the minister said.

Saus rejects Nzimande's response

Saus rejected Nzimande's response, saying it was unsatisfactory and offered no tangible solutions.

“We see these responses as a 'check box' exercise, unsatisfactory and with no tangible solutions to address the 15 demands submitted. This is also a testament to the lack of urgency and commitment by the ministry to amicably resolve these issues without exposing students to brutal protests,” said Saus.

The union said the shutdown will continue until all the demands are met and will be based on unity and not political affiliations.

“We have already met the student political organisations and we will continue to engage them to ensure that students are united and work together as a collective,” said Saus.

“We must make it clear to the public that we are against the burning of buildings, destruction of infrastructure and violence. We call upon all students to participate in this shutdown peacefully.”

Stern warning to vice-chancellors of universities

Saus issued a stern warning to vice-chancellors of universities, saying that should they suspend or expel SRC members or students they will be dealt with.

Wits university SRC president Mpendulo Mfeka said it could take “a month” of student protests before demands are met.

“We're continuing [with protests] the rest of the week, until our demands are met. The week might not be enough to address out demands. — we might need a month,” said Mfeka.

SA weighs in

On social media, the hashtag #NationalShutdown topped the trending list as many weighed in on it.

Here is a snapshot of what was said: