/ 25 July 2020

Students ‘dreams are crumbling’

Graphic Students Twitter (1)
Disadvantaged: Students who live in rural areas with inadequate or no network coverage will struggle to keep up. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

The students speak from a place of hopelessness, anger and pain. Their future is slipping away before their eyes. They do not know who to turn to. 

While the more affluent universities have been continuing with studies online since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown in March, it has not been so for students at former historically disadvantaged institutions. 

Students from University of Venda, the University of Fort Hare and University of Zululand said they were still waiting for laptops and data, adding that there has been little communication from their institutions about plans to continue with their studies. 

“I feel like my dreams have come crumbling down,” said Ariofhi Nembaleni, a final year student at the University of Venda. 

He got data from the university only at the end of June, but still does not have a laptop. 

A number of students at the university said it was only recently that they started their studies using WhatsApp. Their lecturers host discussions and interact with students on the social media platform, as well as give them tasks to do.

But these have not been effective, according to student Doctor Netshamutavha. Because he does not have a laptop, he goes to a local internet cafe to type out his assignments. 

The department of higher education, science and innovation classifies eight institutions as historically disadvantaged. 

The fact that little work has taken place at the University of Fort Hare this year has exacerbated an already difficult situation. Even before the university went on early recess in March, students had been protesting about funding problems.

Final year student Benjamin Faku said that since March there has barely been any teaching and learning. His account was corroborated by other students.

Faku said that despite promises of laptops and data, nothing has been provided. “There was procurement of laptops but those laptops have not arrived. They were supposed to arrive at the end of May and that never happened. When that did not happen they gave another announcement that the laptops would arrive at the end of July, but two weeks ago we got another announcement that it would be sometime in August.”

Faku added that some lecturers continue to give assignments and that this approach risks marginalising the majority of students because they cannot do the work. 

“It has been hell. It is supposed to be my final year and I know for a fact that I might not graduate next year because of the way things are going,” said Faku.

Students who are able to continue studying — such as second-year student Nonhlanhla Mphephe,who has a laptop and has received data —worry that it would be unfair to keep up with their studies when their peers cannot. 

“We are not doing anything because we cannot leave others behind,” Mphephe said. “There are those who have not received data who are doing the same course I am doing.” 

She wants to leave Fort Hare.

Some students envy students at better-resourced institutions. 

Gift Mzotsho, a second year student at Fort Hare, said: “I had a chat with one of my friends who is studying at UP [University of Pretoria]. The guy says they have been writing their exams, they are continuing with their academic calendar, while we do not know what is going to happen with us. That really broke my heart. I wished that would have been me.”

Students from University of Zululand say that for the past four months they have been sitting at home, idling, with little communication and information from their institution.

“We just have lost hope and we do not know who to turn to for help because it seems no one is hearing our cries and pleas. As students of Zululand we are suffering, we have been suffering for a very long time,” said final year student Robin Dladla. 

“I have thought of deregistering because the pressure is just too much. I envy my peers who go to other universities. At the beginning I remember there were these pictures circulating on social media of UKZN [University of KwaZulu-Natal] students receiving data and yet we were promised that we would also receive the data and nothing happened. It is the fourth month now and we have not received anything at all.”

Dladla is worried about her future. Her parents expect her to finish her studies and start working. Her friends at other universities will graduate and “I will be left behind,” she said. 

Dladla is also anxious about whether she will get financial aid next year: the rules of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) are that students will not get funding after exceeding a certain number of years of their studies, and it is not yet clear whether these regulations will be amended.

Palomino Jama, the gender officer at the South African Union of Students, said the student organisation has called for a single coordinated Covid-19 response unit in the university sector precisely so that no institutions get left behind. 

“Online learning actually disadvantages the majority in our sector. Our sector’s majority is black and working class, and it cannot be that the majority response was online learning,” she said.

Jama observed that some universities, such as the University of the Witwatersrand, will finish their academic year in 2020, while others will only complete it in 2021, which risks entrenching inequalities. 

“A lot of the former white institutions will complete the semester this year and that means our former black institutions will then lag behind. So what does that look like next year? What does the enrolment process look like next year? I do not think this is in line with having a single, coordinated sector.”

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande said earlier this month that the academic calendar will be completed early next year and this would mean the 2021 academic year would start later.

The Mail & Guardian contacted the universities of Fort Hare, Venda and Zululand to establish what measures they have put in place to assist students with their studies since the lockdown. 

Only the University of Venda responded. It said that it had encouraged lecturers to continue teaching using different online-based approaches including WhatsApp. 

Spokesperson Takalani Dzanga said many of the students live in rural areas where they battle with network coverage, and that the university plans to provide students with memory sticks loaded with learning material or with hardcopy materials that would be delivered to their homes. 

In April, Nzimande announced that students funded by NSFAS will be provided with laptops. Earlier this month he said the tender for laptops was advertised in June and its closing date was July 13. 

He anticipated that the tender would be awarded and contract completed on August 15.