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Varsity disruptions as students protest financial exclusion, accommodation shortages

Student leaders at the University of the Witwatersrand have embarked on a hunger strike, the latest in a series of protests at South African campuses.

About 50 students, including the Wits student representative council (SRC), embarked on a hunger strike on Tuesday morning. The hunger strike follows a protest at the university on Monday, where the SRC said over 500 students had no accommodation and over a thousand students are being threatened with financial exclusion.

“The reason we began a hunger strike is because of the fact that we have been here since 2015, we know what it is like to be part of #FeesMustFall,” Thaakirah Savahl, the deputy secretary general for the SRC said.

She added that the students would continue protesting until they could meet with Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib.

#WitsHungerStrike: Wits wasn’t prepared during #FeesMustFall. Has anything changed?

The SRC is calling for the registration of all students who have been granted space at the university. It has also called for Wits’ assistance in providing accommodation for returning students.

Wits SRC Gender and Transformation Officer Sibongile Sibeko told the university publication, Wits Vuvuzela, that the SRC was calling for Wits to open three university buildings for students. According to Sibeko, Wits has said it cannot open the buildings because of budgetary constraints.

Keneuwe Setai, treasurer general for the Wits SRC, said in previous years the university had opened buildings such as Witwaters and Parktown Village but has since been told that the buildings were no longer Wits properties, saying they were now the property of the Gauteng province.

Setai said the issue with external service providers providing housing was students were required to make an upfront payment — something 580 of the students couldn’t provide owing to an administrative crisis at National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

“This happens on a yearly basis, but this year the university did not have a plan,” said Setai who added that students had been sleeping in libraries, toilets and in the SRC office.

There are over 33 000 students registered to study at Wits, but only has room for just over 6 000. According to Setai, the university also prioritises the accommodation on campus for first-year students.

However, Wits spokesperson Buhle Zuma said the university is working with external service providers to secure additional accommodation. Currently, Wits has allocated 6 200 beds to students.

Nsfas, in a statement on January 23, said it had been reviewing rejected applicants and had validated and approved for funding an additional 11 613 social grant beneficiaries. For the 2019 academic year, Nsfas noted that is had approved a total of 60 000 students for social grants.

The university’s Hardship Fund — worth R12-million — has also already begun assisting students, said Zuma, awarding funding to about 80 students in need of urgent accommodation. The fund is also evaluating an additional 200 applications that have come through in the last five days.

The Hardship Fund, Savahl says, needs to be extended throughout the year and not just made available to students at the start of the year. Savahl said the SRC had also asked Wits to allow students with historic debt — these are students who owe the university R100 000 or less — the opportunity to gain access to this fund, even if their registration is pending.

Over and above concerns around accommodation, the SRC has asked that students are able to register for the current academic year, despite their historical debt.

According to Zuma, Wits has already made several concessions [for registration] including postponing the upfront fee payment for students on Nsfas, scholarships and bursaries and for those who cannot afford to pay immediately.

“Returning students who owe R10 000 or less are also permitted to register.”

On Tuesday morning, at least four students were assaulted by private security during the peaceful protest. Savahl said students had been sitting in the concourse with blankets and study materials, posing no threat. “Our main directive was that students were not going to get hurt,” Savahl said.

“We want to protect our students in all ways possible.”

One of the students has laid charges following her assault this morning, while three others have taken the matter to the Wits Gender Equity Office. The SRC has also taken the matter to the dean of students and has condemned the use of private security on campus, who, in the words of the SRC, “continue to victimise and intimidate students right to a protest”.

In a statement, student leadership said “It can’t be that we turn a blind eye to how institutions of higher learning respond to the mass mobilization of students and the exercise of “their right to protest.”

Meanwhile the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Durban University of Technology (DUT) have been shut down.

On Monday the SRCs at these campuses called for the shutdown pending the placement of returning students in safe accommodation with their Nsfas allowances unblocked and paid in full.

Two cars were burnt on UKZN campuses and police were deployed to disperse the protesters. Since academic programmes were suspended at UKZN, SRC president Sanele Hlongwa said the protests are ongoing, but that the university had “frustrated the issue” on Tuesday by not providing busses to transport students to campus.

“When students return to campus for classes, the protest will continue,” said Hlongwa.

However, following a meeting between university officials and the SRC, Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) — which had closed on Monday — announced that lectures would continue on Tuesday. According to MUT, it had paid out 5 600 allowances to students and would pay a further 1 600 student allowances by the end of Tuesday.

Academic programmes at DUT have been suspended for Tuesday and Wednesday; while UKZN said its academic programmes would be suspended until further notice.

UKZN acting vice-chancellor and principal Professor Nana Poku said in a statement on Monday that the university was “actively working” through the memorandum it received from the SRC to address the issues that were raised.

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