Student union claims ‘partial victory’ in fees protests and vows to fight on

24 March 2021 - 14:46
By naledi shange AND Naledi Shange
A student union spearheading #NationalShutdown of universities has called for students to refrain from attending online lectures. File photo.
Image: Alaister Russell A student union spearheading #NationalShutdown of universities has called for students to refrain from attending online lectures. File photo.

While some universities have agreed to register students despite their unpaid debt, the SA Union of Students (Saus), which is spearheading the latest fees protests, said this was only a partial victory.

The University of Cape Town and University of the Free State are among those that have unblocked indebted students from their registration systems.

“Students have scored some victories in the protests but most of these victories are campus-based, not national. When it comes to the national demands made, the leadership continue to engage and try to find common ground,” said Saus national organiser Yandisa Nzoyiya.

“The demand to clear all student debt has not been met. Not all institutions have agreed to register all students. Other demands related to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Such as appeals and the reopening of applications have not been met.

“The protests will continue until campus leaders indicate satisfaction on their side. We want all students to be registered, accommodated and fed. Then we will be happy.”

Tertiary learning has faced disruption this month as students took to the streets to protest. At the top of their agenda was access to free education, particularly for middle-class students who did not qualify for bursaries offered by the NSFAS. The group is also calling for:

  • the clearing of historical debt for all students;
  • allowing registration for academically and financially deserving students;
  • no financial and academic exclusion; and
  • a solid plan for funding the missing middle students.

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande appealed to students on Tuesday to end their national shutdown, but Nzoyiya remained confident victory was imminent.

“Students demands will be met and free education will be delivered as long as students remain true to their struggles,” he said.

The impact of the latest protest action by students may not have been as severe as in previous years. Some institutions have recorded a high turnout of students in their online lectures.

Universities South Africa (Usaf) chairperson Prof Ahmed Bawa told TimesLIVE technology had played a role in the impact of the protests.

“The systems put in place for the use of technology in learning will change the nature of student engagement,” Bawa said.

If it happens that comrades log in to classes, they must sign in for that Zoom session and collapse the lecture.
Yandisa Nzoyiya, Saus

Saus has reiterated a call for students to stop attending online classes.

“As Saus we are protesting. We only log in for Zoom meetings with the department and the NSFAS. If it happens that comrades log in to classes, they must sign in for that Zoom session and collapse the lecture,” said Nzoyiya.

Saus said it would intensify its protests after Nzimande and his deputy Buti Manamela reportedly failed to arrive at a meeting over the weekend, citing other commitments.

Nzimande told parliament’s higher education portfolio committee on Tuesday he was concerned the protests had become a regular occurrence.

“Every year, it’s like a soap, The Bold and the Beautiful. Every beginning of the year there is instability,” he said.

The minister said he was hoping to resolve the issue of the “missing middle” to avoid instability in higher education. He said as far as obligations were concerned, the government had met its obligations.

“The heart of the issue is as simple as this: NSFAS students are catered for, which is government’s policy with the means test, which is family income of R350,000 per annum. That is catered for and dealt with.”

While Nzimande was seemingly quashing student concerns, Bawa said the struggles being faced by students had been festering for too long.

“The new government bursary system plays an incredibly important role in providing access to students from poor and working class backgrounds, covering 50-60% of the students system,” Bawa said.

“But we do need a national system for students that covers all funding. Not having such a system undermines the purpose of universities and erodes student potential and hope.”

Saus has since taken its grievances to the public protector and the SA Human Rights Commission.

The union said it had “successfully presented the case for education as a human right and the right to protest. The meeting resolved to collectively set up a mechanism to identify and investigate [the] violation of student rights, including the abuse of power by vice-chancellors through court interdicts and suspension or expulsion of students”.

They hope civil society groups will support their cause.

After a meeting last week, the union said: “In broader efforts to intensify the #NationalShutdown, the meeting resolved to prepare logistics to mobilise students across all institutions of higher learning, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, the taxi industry through the SA National Taxi Council and citizens across the country in preparation of rolling mass action to sites of government including the National Treasury, the department of higher education, the NSFAS, the Union Buildings and parliament.”