African students stuck in limbo

From forced evictions to lack of food and xenophobic hostilities, African students studying overseas or in other countries on the continent continue to face difficulties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Guangzhou, China, at least half a dozen international students experienced stigmatisation amid racial tensions, while those in Burkina Faso have demanded better meals and health facilities. 

Everything happened so fast. Authorities struggled to understand how Covid-19 pandemic spreads and changing information about the virus’s behaviour resulted in confusion on how to respond. In many cases, this left international students in limbo.

Universities around the world had to close in compliance with emergency regulations. In South Africa, some students were asked to vacate residences within 72 hours. This provoked bewilderment and paranoia among the student population. 

“Within this short period of time, students had to pack their things, book transports and flights back home. It was difficult and it put an additional pressure on us as resident managers to implement,” said Nazime Randera, the general manager at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Wits Junction Residence. 

Academic programmes have been greatly affected and students face worse predicaments. 

“This is something nobody planned for and it’s taking a toll on everyone irrespective of where they are,” said Stephen Kafeero, a Ugandan student studying at Wits university.

For Kafeero, going home would have been the preferred option. “Living away from home right now is very challenging. I wanted to return, but the border was closed before I could complete my travel arrangements.” 

Universities had to devise measures to accommodate students who could not go home. Randera said that before Covid-19, 63 international students lived at Wits Junction (of a total of 1 193 students). Now 20 international students remain, with nowhere else to go. 

International students are concerned about shortages of food and medical care and difficulties with doing academic work. “Previously, I knew that I had a lecture. I have to wake up early and know that I have an assignment and things like that. But now, I have to drive myself and sometimes I’m just stocked in my room; it’s not easy,” said Gabrielle Kwambana, an honours student studying geological sciences at Wits University. 

A similar view is echoed by a second-year law student from Zimbabwe studying at Unisa, who prefers not to be named. “I miss home at moments like these. Most of us haven’t gone to our countries and at times like these it’s important to share your fears close to family because the ‘what if’ something happens to me will be knocking in.” 

News of infection rates and death tolls in their home countries compounds students’ fears. Worried families back home bombard students with regular calls. “Sometimes the calls become annoying and I feel like turning off my phone. I think I am fine here and worry about my people back home, but they tend to worry more about me. It gets confusing,” said Kafeero. 

Kwambana said that when the pandemic started, her mother would call regularly. “She will say to me that people are dying and bombards me with figures of increasing cases and asking me not to move too much and to stay safe. It all made me worried.”

For Kwambana, there came a moment when the Covid-19 fight got personal. “When I heard news of the UK prime minister contracting the virus. I was seriously worried about my dad, who lives in London. I was praying that he doesn’t get the virus. On the other side, he worries about me so much.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s extension of the 21-day nationwide lockdown by an additional two weeks until April 30, was a blow for students like Kwambana. “I was looking forward to the lockdown being over and all of a sudden an additional two weeks was announced. It crushed my spirit.” 

For her, this lockdown has been more than just missing university. “I escape from this boredom of lockdown whenever I feel like it’s too much by calling my father and friends. Socialising is a lot harder now and when you don’t have much to do, you keep repeating the same things over and over again.” 

Wits University has instituted online classes. “It is hard being alone, but working from the comfort of your room without having to worry about classes makes it easy. My job is to try to study and be a good citizen,” said Kafeero.

Abdul S Brima is a media fellow of Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Greed won’t end the vaccine wars

In the race for a safe and effective vaccine, human rights and honesty should be prioritised above profits, say activists

NSFW: The tricky business of OnlyFans

In an increasingly digital world, OnlyFans has given online creators a new way to make money on their own terms

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

South Africa must revisit and refresh its idea of itself

Covid has propelled citizens into feelings of a new shared identity in which the historical force of ‘whiteness’ is fading into irrelevance

The high road is in harm reduction

While the restriction of movement curtailed the health services for people who use drugs in some parts of the world, it propelled other countries into finding innovative ways to continue services, a new report reveals

How to escape the ‘era of pandemics’

Any of 850 000 viruses could cause the next global crisis. Experts say we should focus on prevention

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

‘Battle-tested’ vs ‘kind and fair’ — DA candidates’ last push...

John Steenhuisen and Mbali Ntuli both acknowledged the problems faced by the party over the past year, with each of them offering their own leadership vision.

A Landie icon is born

Replacing one of the most-loved cars in history, the new Defender pulls off the near impossible task of doing almost everything better

NSFW: The tricky business of OnlyFans

In an increasingly digital world, OnlyFans has given online creators a new way to make money on their own terms

Q&A Sessions: ‘Keeping quiet is not an option’ — Charlotte...

More than a decade after a brief stint on the opposition benches, Charlotte Lobe is helping to fly the South African flag as a senior public servant in the department of international relations and co-operation

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday