It’s the third month of 2019, yet many students are still looking for accommodation. This is evident from posts on social media by students looking for affordable accommodation near their campuses. At the beginning of the year, a number of people were willing to assist first-year students mostly with temporary accommodation while they finalised their registrations at universities and colleges.
Malaika Mahlatsi, for instance, was among the people who helped students from other provinces and disadvantaged background with finding temporary accommodation, food and transport. Although this is a good initiative, it lasted just for the registration period and students are still in need of safe accommodation for the rest of the academic year.
This accommodation issue is not new in post-apartheid South Africa. When Jacob Zuma was elected president in 2009, the department of higher education and training was established and it was believed that the separation of post-school institutions from the department of basic education would assist in addressing problems at higher education institutions, including student accommodation.
In 2010 the minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, appointed a ministerial committee to review the provision of student accommodation at universities. But protests and boycotts because of the shortage of accommodation and conditions at student residences continue.
In 2009 students at the University of Limpopo protested about accommodation, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and alleged victimisation of students by some staff members.
In 2010 students at three institutions — the Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban, Tshwane University of Technology and Stellenbosch University’s Tygerberg campus protested about accommodation. The issues were filthy residences and expensive accommodation.
Safe student accommodation at public higher education institutions is the responsibility of the state, the university and society. When the 2010 ministerial committee was out, it was evident that the demand for accommodation would not be resolved soon because the number of students is growing. The government and universities asked for intervention from the private sector.
The private sector has responded by providing accommodation.
After the 2015-2016 #MustFall protests and the announcement by Zuma in 2017 that the government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students, more first-year students are enrolling for higher education.
Although Zuma mentioned that more student accommodation wouldbe built, old student housing refurbished and urgent attentiongiven to historically disadvantaged institutions, the current shortage of accommodation is dehumanising for students who cannot afford accommodation and this has a direct effect on their academic success.
Because on-campus residence is poorly regulated, students sublet, and this results in overcrowding as well as health and safety risks. Off-campus accommodation can be more affordable, but it is not always academically conducive or well regulated and this can result in the violation of their right to basic quality of health and safety.
The demand for accommodation continues after the #FeesMustFall students protests, particularly during the orientation period and at the start of a new academic year. In 2016 a shack was erected at the University of Cape Town to draw attention to the housing crisis. At the University of Limpopo students went to the Mankweng police station to demand safer living conditions after a student living off-campus was shot, others were raped and houses robbed.
In 2016 Nzimande hosted a student housing symposium at Unisa in Pretoria attended by students, the private sector, higher education institutions and a range of partners to address the shortage of student housing and funding for new accommodation.
Last year students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) protested about the conditions at residences. Under the hashtag #Kwazekwanzima, which means it is very difficult, students demanded better living conditions at residences, which leaked when it rained, had bed bugs and no hot water for showers.
This year, students at the University of the Witwatersrand went on hunger strike over accommodation, registration fees and financial exclusion. At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology students erected a shack to portray the problems of student accommodation. At the Durban University of Technology a student was shot during protests whenstudents and security guards clashed. At UKZN, students burnt mattresses in protest over uncomfortable beds.
The demand for safe, sustainable accommodation needs deliberate action urgently because this has a direct effect on students’ academic success.This year, in the ANC’s January 8 Statement, President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned that the party is committed to ensuring that in expanding fee-free education for students from poor and working-class backgrounds it will include accommodation, transport and study materials for qualifying students at public colleges and universities.
The challenge of not having accommodation fit for students to learn and live in is worrisome. This shortage of proper student housing needs immediate attention because it contributes to the underperformance of students, which is reflected in the drop-out rate. Student housing should be more than just the provision of beds; it should create living, learning and social communities.
Lebogang Tiego Legodi is completing his master’s at the University of Limpopo and is an associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute. These are his own views