Following meetings with the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) management, students at the Butterworth campus in Gcuwa, Eastern Cape, embarked on a strike on 8 April 2021. The protest action grew by the next week and on Thursday, 15 April 2021 students in other campuses also downed pens to join their Butterworth fellow students.
According to some student leaders, the university has done them a disservice by changing tack. Whereas in the past WSU assisted students that did not qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to register; currently waiting lists have been stagnant; and it has not attended to accommodation challenges faced by students nor handled book allowances and laptop issues properly.
“The strike was declared in [a] mass meeting, not necessarily by political structures but by students of Walter Sisulu University in each respective campus”, said Phelo Nocamagu Mathentamo, who is the WSU Student Representative Council (SRC) President (PASMA).
“We had numerous meetings with the management of this [university]” that led to these protests, but according to Mathentamo they were not taken seriously by the institution. “Issues stem from exclusions in registration, admissions, the state of residences, special cases, book allowances vs. laptops, graduations, issuing of certificates and unfunded students”, added the WSU SRC president.
“We have had meetings with the office of the Registrar negotiating”, Mokgweetsi Keikabile said, who acts as branch chairperson for PASMA (the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania). He said that the students wanted the university to resolve matters relating to admissions; attend the waiting list; ensure all students are registered and that those who are promoted to the next level of academic study be moved on, on the system.
One other big challenge students have is book allowances. Students and the university are at loggerheads regarding the university’s approach to the problem. Some students say that they have not received allowances for stationery if they are in possession of laptops despite being awarded a NSFAS bursary.
The students say that they have previously invited the university Vice-Chancellor to a meeting when staff were not coming to work. Instead, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education came to one of the meetings, and nothing has happened since to resolve the situation.
According to Keikabile, the decision of the university to discontinue some of its courses of study at Butterworth campus, to be exact; the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Education, and moving them to the East London campus, has also caused huge disturbance and uproar. Further escalating this situation is the university’s decision to no longer offer the Post-Graduation Certificate in Education, which is a useful option for many graduates who cannot find employment in their respective fields.
Mathentamo said that due to the commonplace nature of these problems, it has not been difficult to mobilise students because these issues are affecting the majority students. She said that the SRC, of which she is part, does not need to decide for students, they only receive a mandate and try to implement it.
Some of the conditions that are common to students, according to Mathentamo and Keikabile, are below-par student housing in the area around the university. There is not much difference between the private accommodation and the university-owned residential homes. On average, students must pay an annual sum of R26 000 but many of the rooms have broken windows. The showers, where they are functioning, are in a dire state and the residences have no accessible Wi-Fi. Access to the internet has proven critical for students, even before the Corona virus pandemic.
On Monday, 19 April, the university issued a statement to close all university campuses, leaving many students stranded, particularly those from who come from other provinces. The students were given two hours to evacuate the premises of the university.
The statement by Prof R Songca, Principal & Vice-Chancellor of WSU, claims that the university has resolved most of the grievances of the students and that continued student action and “disruption of the university, property being damaged and the lives of WSU staff and students being threatened” is the reason for the closure of the university. However this does not explain why the WSU student body would continue with protest action if the majority of their grievances had been met.
Keikabile credited a religious institution, Free Church, and some landlords for housing stranded students without expecting rent under the circumstances.
This article was submitted on 23 April 2021. You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and Karibu! Online (www.Karibu.org.za), and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.