#WhyThisMatters: Billions spent, squalor still at rural universities

COMMENT

Students are the future. That’s what politicians keep saying. They will unlock the much-hyped fourth industrial revolution and move this country away from being the most unequal in the world.

But 25 years after democratic elections, students are still forced to live in shacks. Crammed together, without basic services, they walk far to campus, often in the dark, terrified of being mugged or raped.

The Mail & Guardian reported last week on the squalid conditions that black students in rural universities face (“UniZulu students’ accommodation conditions are ‘inhumane”). But those in charge are escaping blame.

A student at the University of Zululand’s KwaDlangezwa campus told the M&G last week: “I sometimes do not even feel that I’m a university student because of the conditions I stay in.” She can only afford R450 a month for a squalid flat 3km from her campus. “It’s only when there is a lecturer in front of me that I feel that I’m attending university.”

So much of this is a legacy of apartheid. Determined to give black students a worse education than white students, the state ensured universities were built in rural and underdeveloped areas. These were then given little in the way of resources.

But it has been 25 years since governance was based on racism. Those rural universities are still under-resourced or indifferently run. At UniZulu’s KwaDlangezwa campus there still isn’t enough accommodation for students. Those with some money rent back rooms; the rest live in shacks. That means they have to learn trigonometry, read Shakespeare or excel at sport, while reading with the light from a candle or while they sit worrying about the next time their door will be smashed in by thieves.

The KwaDlangezwa situation is not unique. In 2015, Blade Nzimande, then minister of higher education and training, announced a Historically Disadvantaged Institutions Development Grant. These historically black and disadvantaged universities would get R410-million a year until 2021. Nzimande said this money was given to the universities so they could realise their full potential and shake off the stigma of being “the academic orphans of apartheid”.

Nzimande also revealed that of the R1.6-billion given to build and refurbish student residences during the 2012-2013 and 2014-15 financial years, R1.4-billion went to historically black universities.

In 2017, Nzimande announced a new R6.964-billion infrastructure budget for universities. Of this, R2.1-billion would be for student housing, and R1.5-billion for universities to refurbish and update infrastructure and tackle maintenance backlog. Just under R250-million would go to historically disadvantaged universities for new infrastructure projects.

Those are significant amounts of money. Universities should be construction sites, yet students continue to live in squalor. It’s one of the main reasons that students feel they have to start each academic year with protests.

At UniZulu, a student laid the blame on the people leading the institutions of higher learning — when their children go to other, better, universities, why would managers care about other people’s children? Billions are being spent to give students — and this country — a better future. It must be accounted for.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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