A few weeks ago the Mail & Guardian carried a story about the child of a clerk in Bloemfontein who owed the University of Free State R58 000 and could not re-register until she paid it. Despite countless affidavits proving her mother could not afford her studies she never got National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding. To pay for her studies, her mother has had to borrow money from banks and loan sharks.
Last week, the M&G reported about a young man from Bloemfontein whose dreams have been put on hold because he owes the Central University of Technology R70 000. He cannot get his qualification certificate until he settles his debt and, as a result, he has lost out on jobs.
These are people whose parents, on paper, look like they have money to pay university fees and thus do not qualify for NSFAS funding, but in reality they do not. They are called the “missing middle”.
Their parents use their salaries to run households, pay school fees for other siblings who are still at school, pay bonds and support other family members. By the end of the month they are left with nothing, so they can’t pay the fees.
Paying university fees for their children might not be a big issue for politicians. We have also heard from the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture that a few politicians had people paying their children’s university fees in exchange for government contracts.
That is not the reality of a single mother in Bloemfontein who cannot even pay for electricity at the end of the month because any extra money goes into paying university fees. A mother who stays up all night with a migraine because people in her circle will no longer lend her money and now she has nowhere to turn. Yet the university wants its fees before it will accept her child back.
These are real stories, not fiction.
When students take to the streets every academic year over funding problems it is not a hobby they enjoy. It is not fun and games. It is not because they do not want to go to class and relish burning tyres, blocking traffic and being shot with rubber bullets by the police.
They do these things because they honestly do not know where to turn to raise the money they owe so that they will be allowed to register and conclude their studies.
To then have one of the longest-serving ministers tasked with higher education in this country making insensitive remarks about students’ lived realities really boggles the mind.
At a recent meeting of the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education, Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, likened student protests at the start of every academic calendar to a soap opera.
“Every year, it’s like a soap, The Bold and the Beautiful. Every beginning of the year there is instability,” he said.
But what has Nzimande done to ensure that this instability does not become a yearly occurrence?
Granted, he cannot solve issues of funding alone because ultimately the money will not come from his department. But what innovative ideas or plans has Nzimande presented to his colleagues in the cabinet to intervene in some of these issues, especially that of the missing middle? It appears that free education is not on the cards.
I interviewed Nzimande in 2019. This was a few months after he returned to the higher education portfolio after his stint as minister of transport and 19 months spent in the wilderness after he was booted out of the cabinet when Jacob Zuma was president.
One of the things we spoke at length about was how he wanted to tackle the issue of the missing middle. He spoke of plans to assist the children of working parents who are excluded from NSFAS funding.
“My ideal is that irrespective of how much you earn you should be able to get a loan for higher education,” said Nzimande at the time.
How far down the track are these plans of his?
If Nzimande has worked on these plans he clearly has not translated them into reality because children of professionals still resort to burning tyres to be allowed back into the system.
I have written in this column before that politicians need to exercise empathy when dealing with people’s realities. People’s suffering is not a joke that can be likened to entertainment on television.