Many poor and rural university applicants say they have endured excruciating stress following financial exclusions, for which students this week united in lambasting ANC governance.
But the South African Students Congress (Sasco), which planned protests at 11 universities, has downplayed the political significance of the uprising — on a scale unprecedented in the post-apartheid era — coming shortly before the country's fifth democratic elections.
The timing had "nothing to do with elections and everything to do with the fact there is not enough funding [for students]", Sasco general secretary Luzuko Buku said this week.
Centred on the state's National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), including its underfunding and its chronically late disbursements, such protests are an annual occurrence but "the difference this year is that it's 11 universities at the same time", Buku said. "Government must organise more money … This is poor governance."
Shir'a Jeenah, a Sasco chairperson at the University of Johannesburg, said many students had been stranded when the loans failed to materialise and they were excluded from residences.
"Some of these students have absolutely nowhere to stay. Some have been sleeping 10 in a room. We've been helping them look for places where they could squat. They are under huge, huge, stress. We even heard of a student who slept in a public bathroom."
This week two second-year marketing students at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) said they would have to return to their homes in Hammanskraal, an hour and a half away, if they were not allocated loans.
Scorch marks from tyres burned during the protests were still visible on the road near one of the university of technology's gates. And a third-year nursing student dragged her bags up a hill to return to her residence. "I packed my things and left before things really heated up," she said.
First-year student Keon Mkhize said the ANC "is not a favourite on campus right now". "I've heard many people say 'this is a government fund and look at the problems'."
Students were removed from residences last week Thursday, TUT spokesperson Willa de Ruyter said. "An assessment of the safety situation on all campuses left the university no choice but to close down due to escalating student protest action and vandalism."
A "political edge"
Ahmed Bawa, vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology (DUT) — one of several at which protests were especially torrid — said there was a clear "political edge" to the protests.
"The speed with which students took to the streets [last week] was much more rapid [than previously]. We've always had the chance to negotiate but this year it felt like the protests would happen regardless."
"We met with the [students' representative council on Tuesday] and we said, 'look, these are the issues that we can attempt to address and these are the issues we can't — and the rest must be left to politics'."
The day after, Bawa announced the university would reopen next week.
"Approximately 1 160 students are still waiting to hear the outcome of their appeals for funding," he said in a statement. "DUT has raised this with NSFAS and [it] was also discussed with the minister [of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande]. NSFAS has committed towards a faster appeals process so that it does not compromise our students.
"DUT has agreed to assist all students who fall under this category and who are on track to complete their qualifications in 2014 by allowing them to register so that they can complete their diploma or degree this year."
Nzimande released an ambitious white paper last month on post-school education and training — one applauded for its goals, but criticised for its lack of implementation detail on the kinds of problems that saw several universities in flames last week.
Last week Nzimande said, although NSFAS's budget had increased from R3.1-billion in 2009 to about R9-billion, there was still a shortfall of R2.6-billion. He would make R1-billion available to universities now.
This left one TUT student, who asked not to be named, unimpressed. "Why did Blade give more money now? To make the ANC look better? The ANC already looks bad."