It ain't over till varsity fees really fall

As the academic year begins with issues around student fees unresolved, protests will start again. (David Harrison, M&G)

As the academic year begins with issues around student fees unresolved, protests will start again. (David Harrison, M&G)

After the wave of student demonstrations at the end of last year, universities are anticipating another round of disruptions at the start of the 2016 academic year. Student groups involved in the #FeesMustFall protests have promised that registration day won’t be business as usual.

Simone Cupido, spokesperson for Open Stellenbosch, said: “We’ve got a major problem with the registration programme and orientation processes that are exclusionary to all kinds of students.

“Definitely something will happen from our side in terms of changing the culture of the university.”

Stellenbosch students have to pay at least R10 000 by the registration date. If this is not paid, Cupido said students are not allowed access to crucial resources such as the library.

Last year the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allocated R1.4-billion to cover the registration fees of students in the programme. But many youngsters from working class families cannot get funding because, according to NSFAS’s system, their parents earn too much for them to apply for funding assistance – yet their parents don’t earn enough to pay the fees.

“I am a working class person; my mother does not have that money in January,” Cupido said.

Students face various problems. At Stellenbosch University and North-West University in Potchefstroom, students are battling against the language policy that favours Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, leaving those who don’t speak Afrikaans as a first language at a disadvantage while students at the universities of Johannesburg and the Western Cape struggle to overcome their financial problems. Despite the different battles being fought at each institution, students are united in their call for free education, and stand in solidarity for universities to be more inclusive of the marginalised.

Shaeera Kalla, former student representative council (SRC) president at the University of the Witwatersrand, acknowledged the internal divisions that fractured the #WitsFeesMustFall movement last year and called for unity in 2016. “Towards the end of #FeesMustFall 2015 there were a lot of political divisions and we really can’t afford that.”

These divides were sparked at Wits when some students in the #WitsFeesMustFall movement accused the South African Students Congress-led SRC of abusing money donated to the movement and of holding secret meetings.

Kalla stressed the importance of all universities coordinating their actions in 2016. She hinted that the SRC may already have a strategy in place for #FeesMustFall 2016.

Kalla added that registration, which begins at Wits on January 11, will be problematic because the movement demands that all fees must fall.

“What we need to realise is although there was a zero percent increase, the upfront payment fee is a structural mechanism used to control the class structure of our university, and in that way poor students are deliberately excluded from the university,” she said.

This year, Kalla will be “involved as an ordinary student” in the protests, handing the reins of leadership to Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, the current Wits SRC president who became one of the most recognised faces of #FeesMustFall last year.

Andrew Crouch, Wits’s acting vice-chancellor, said students can waive the R9 340 registration fee until March 31 if they cannot pay upfront.

“It would be premature for the university to comment on how it will respond to protests; however we have contingency plans in place to manage the protests according to the university’s policies,” he said.

While the Wits SRC plays a crucial role in the #FeesMustFall movement, the University of Cape Town’s SRC had a muted role in the protests at the end of last year, despite having a big presence at the #RhodesMustFall statue protests earlier in 2015.

Although the #RhodesMustFall group, which forms part of the #UCTFeesMustFall movement, has positioned itself as among the most radical of student groups, social activist Chumani Maxwele, the student who sparked the #RhodesMustFall movement after he threw faeces at the sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes, said #FeesMustFall is not just about disruptions and university shutdowns.

“It’s not about protest. It shouldn’t be portrayed that out of the blue people just come out and protest. That’s not our plan, that’s not our programme of action. We don’t wake up and shut down. What we do is we go and consult with the university. Here at UCT now, we are talking to the university in relation to the deferred exams for students,” he said.

Already, #RhodesMustFall has managed to negotiate for residences to open early for students who write deferred exams next week.

Although these students may have a comfortable study environment, many of them will worry about registration day. UCT requires that students pay a tuition fee of R21 500 by February 5 to register.

“It’s not about shutdowns and so on. It’s about how far can we go to make sure that poor children don’t suffer the humiliation of having to pay money that they don’t have in a country that’s supposed to have free education,” Maxwele said.

Universities across South Africa, including UCT, were criticised last year for filing court interdicts against protesting students.

UCT says that should protests occur during registration this year, the university will try to “engage” student representatives in a “constructive manner”.

Maxwele says the students’ task is to put pressure on vice-chancellors who can then reach out to government, as they did at the end of last year when President Jacob Zuma announced the 0% fee increase.

The motivating factor behind #FeesMustFall has little to do with finance, he argues. For student protestors, the fight for free education isn’t about saving money, but protecting their rights.

Cupido added: “We want the government to take us seriously and instil a model that considers that tertiary education is not a luxury, it is a right for everybody.”

 
Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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