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Higher education shutdown looms as Nzimande scurries for funding solutions

The South African Students Congress (Sasco) says it intends to render every campus in the country ungovernable until the money that has been defunded from higher education is returned. 

Concurrently, the South African Union of Students (SAUS) is mobilising for a national shutdown of all higher education institutions in the country as of Monday. 

This comes as students from several campuses in the country embarked on protests, calling for all students to be allowed to continue with their studies and for universities not to financially exclude those who could not afford to pay registration fees or their historical debt. 

On Wednesday, Mthokozisi Edwin Ntumba was shot and killed by police during a protest by University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) students in Braamfontein. 

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Students at Wits have been protesting for the past three weeks. According to Shirona Patel, the university’s spokesperson, at least 1 200 students are in need of financial assistance for registration.

Early in February, students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal also protested against financial exclusion and demanded all students, even those with debt, be allowed to register. However, the university said it has debt of R1.6-billion and that it is “not in a position to waive the requirement for students to pay all amounts committed to in their 2020 debt acknowledgements and repayment plans.”

This week, student protests also erupted at the University of Limpopo, the University of the Free State and the University of Johannesburg, and students from the University of Pretoria  marched to the department of higher education offices. 

Meanwhile, the student representative council (SRC) of the University of Cape Town released its demands that all students be allowed to register and that their debt be written off. They further demanded that the university put “pressure on the government to fund all students”. 

National Sasco spokesperson Luvuyo Barnes told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that the organisation is mobilising and that: “we are going to render every campus ungovernable in the country”. 

He said this after a cabinet announcement that it had increased funding for first-time students funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), after an announcement on Monday that the scheme had a shortfall. 

“The announcements made by minister Khumbudzo [Ntshavheni, the acting minister in the presidency] and minister [of higher education and training, Blade] Nzimande today do not change the reality on campuses,” Barnes said.

“We are playing with politicians who want to play politics with the futures of students. You have a government that is comfortable with the cycle of poverty and inequality; [one] that it would rather shoot to kill students than to give them an opportunity to get an education.” 

Barnes said it cannot be that every generation of student leaders raises the same issue, and the government says there is nothing to worry about.

“Someone is lying.”

Barnes said Nzimande was not in touch with what is happening on the ground in campuses. “He says students funded by NSFAS do not carry debt, which is not the case. In this academic year, we saw it in every institution: students [being] blocked by their own institutions, which said that NSFAS owed them billions. That is the reality on campuses. 

A man sits on bricks pretending to read as students block traffic in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on March 10, 2021. (Photo by Michele Spatari/AFP)

“But the problem we have with Blade is that he will put nice words on paper and if we had to listen to Blade Nzimande, we would think that there are no problems in higher education. That is not true,” he said.

Barnes said that Sasco — which is ANC-aligned — will not be campaigning for the ANC ahead of the local government elections, until the money that has been defunded from the higher education sector has been given back, especially that taken from NSFAS. 

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According to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s February budget, a reduction of R24.6-billion was planned for the higher education department over the medium-term expenditure framework. This includes a reduction of R6.8-billion in the allocation to NSFAS, and R5-billion less on university subsidies. 

National SAUS spokesperson Thabo Shingange also told the M&G on Thursday that the national executive committee of the union, made up of SRC presidents from all 26 universities, which met on Wednesday, has resolved to hold a national shutdown on Monday. 

This is subject to Nzimande failing to meet a list of 15 demands, for which the union has set a deadline of 5pm today. The demands include free registration for all students, the clearance of historical debt and a 0% fee increase for 2021. 

Speaking at a media briefing on Thursday, Nzimande said he had received the demands from SAUS and that he would respond as soon as he was able to.

Shingange said Nzimande had an  obligation not only to NSFAS-funded students, but also to students who find themselves financially excluded. 

The union, according to Shingange, had also consulted with Sasco, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Student Command and a union of students for technical and vocational education and training colleges, which agree with the list of demands. 

He said the shutdown will not be only for universities, but for the entire higher education sector. 

This week, while addressing protesting Wits students, the secretary general of the EFF Student Command, Muzi Khoza, said that the struggle for free higher education was not limited only to Wits, but was a struggle of all institutions of higher learning. 

“Comrades, we have nothing to lose. They have taken the land, they have taken the economy, they have taken everything. The only thing we are fighting for now is a mere education, because we believe that it is only education that can change our backgrounds,” Khoza said.

“Comrades, let us not retreat. Comrades, let us not surrender. We want to send a message to Blade Nzimande that we are going to declare a national shutdown of all institutions of higher learning.”

On Thursday, the cabinet agreed that funding should be reprioritised from the department of higher education’s budget to ensure that all NSFAS-qualifying students receive funding support for the 2021 academic year. 

Nzimande said the cabinet had instructed his department to “immediately” look at a comprehensive review of the student policy.

On Wednesday a man was shot dead by the police after they tried to disperse students by firing rubber bullets. (Photo: Michele Spatari/AFP)

“The purpose of this process will be to look carefully at the funding requirements to support students in financial need in the post-school education and training system, to model the holistic requirements of students, including those from poor and working-class backgrounds, as well as the missing middle.

“Government is very concerned about the issue of growing student debt in the system, as are the universities. This is an issue that will also be considered as part of the policy review,” Nzimande said. 

As the minister made commitments in Tshwane, the protesting Wits students marched to ANC headquarters at Luthuli House to deliver a memorandum demanding free higher education. The party’s secretary general, Ace Magashule, accepted the memorandum and said the ANC’s national working committee met on Wednesday “because of this crisis” and that the committee had interacted with President Cyril Ramaphosa.  

Magashule also said that, on Thursday morning, the ANC leadership within the national executive committee met and directed the government to find money and resources for the students’ demands. 

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The M&G reported on Wednesday that top ANC officials were expected to meet Nzimande over fears of escalating student protests. 

“Your demands are genuine … You must continue with your demands,” Magashule said.

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

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