Students Today: Reasons for Protests

2020 may still be a new year but many students still face familiar problems. The students readied themselves into a force to protest for changes, even if it means those changes are superficial. They want to keep their status as students until graduation, but even just another year will do. Those who are politically active are fighting to establish an ideal university for students in general, while others who protest for convenience just want to see the right conditions while they remain students.

Those who are freshly enrolled are mostly oblivious to what is really going on. Others will inevitably join the picket line because although their applications were successful, they could not enroll for lack of registration fees. Their motive is to get the university to set aside its demands for money ahead of providing education as a primary objective. It is general scenario across universities in South Africa. In short, a lot has been happening in the student community over a number of years but still not much has change.  

Fees & Education
Students face the same problems every year: high tuition fees; political victimisation should they organised against the quagmire poor students find themselves in, and the struggle to subsist throughout their lives as students. In addition, students who come from afar have to worry about finding shelter – more specifically, funds to lease a flat, or to reserve space in a university-owned student residence or commune while at the same time worrying about meals every day. Stationary too is another source of stress.

Universities have over the years come to resemble businesses much more, and in general. Virtually all universities have defined what is called the ‘core business of the university’ leading to cost cutting measures, at times quite dubious like the outsourcing of services such as gardening, security and cleaning – something for which there is no evidence of reduced costs once outsourced. Tuition fees have also climbed with each year past. Household income, mostly below R3500 the national minimum wage, for the vast majority of South Africans is simply nowhere near adequate to purchase the opportunity to study in most universities. However, with job-scarcity at its height made worse by the economy shedding of more and more jobs, expensive tuition fees and the crisis of student housing only make higher education a necessity in order to live a little more comfortably. But at the same time, under neoliberal policies underpinning most of the DHET’s planning and implementation strategy in the sector, it is impossible for working class and poor students to get tertiary education without outside intervention.

There is a saying that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest”, but in South African higher education the trend has been to construct more and more barriers through ever rising costs levelled with bureaucracy at NSFAS and universities themselves. Before 2015, universities hiked tuition by an average of 5% or more, each academic season. In fact, even after 2015 – when #FeesMustFall campaign took off leading to the ex-President Jacob Zuma declaring a 0% fee increment and subsequent ‘free education’ for the country’s poor students, tuition fees have only increased by up to 8% in 2018, for an example, but the government covered this cost. In addition to this, the university has allowed market monopolies in textbook and stationary supply to develop, which is partly the cause for annually rising costs in prices in that area, generally.

Student Housing: A Crisis
According to a speech made by returning Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, on 16 January 2020, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) is aiming to add 300 000 more beds to institutions of higher learning throughout the country, over the next decade. But, according to a paper dated to 2013, titled Student Housing in South Africa – a Conflated Housing Mandate between the State and Higher Education, the state allocated the DHET an amount of R3,2 billion for the years 2010 and 2011, then 2011 and 2012 for the building of new and the rejuvenation of existing student housing infrastructure. However, the paper notes that this budget fell well short of the total for the applications of all twenty two universities which came to the sum of R9,76 billion.

The target which the DHET has set itself will cost over R82 billion with estimated inflation at 10 percent. At the going rate, student housing infrastructure is lagging behind. The backlog is a staggering 195 815 beds. This lag has resulted in what is for all intents and purposes an inflated student housing market by private providers of accommodation to university students. There is no sense that the DHET will address the problem in the immediate years from now, despite grand speeches and plans available for public viewing.

This situation has led to growing investment in property specifically to house students. Various mainstream media outlets make calls to potential investors to look at securing a share in the property industry specifically for student housing. Whatever the maintenance costs suffered by private accommodations to run the buildings, the high rental costs offset that. On average, the rental cost in the cities of Gauteng is R4200, 00 for single rooms and R2800, 00 for shared rooms. This situation is nuanced because this cost rises depending on what ‘extras’, although actually necessary, does the student take. These can cost up to R15 000, 00 annually. ‘Extras’ are actually necessities such as water and electricity, as well as laundry expenses; room-cleaning services and in other cases, real extras such as gym membership.

Students, Struggle and Politics
Recent developments in student politics over the last five years only show a massive trashing of student organisations, repression and expulsions and even the arrest of student activists who have distinguished themselves especially during the #FeesMustFall campaign. Students organised and fought for free education promised to them by the ANC government. This struggling goes back to the early years of the democratic dispensation. Universities such as what is now the Tshwane University of Technology, particularly the Soshanguve campus, protested and demonstrated for free education for upwards of 10 years before the demand also made a comeback in institutions such as Wits university, UP, UCT, UWC, UKZN, joined by UJ and Stellenbosch.

There was not a single university that did not have some form of support for the demand. The combined voice of students in all these universities as well as TVET Colleges throughout the country became known as #FeesMustFall as that was the number one demand. That campaign also saw the revival of another old struggle, the #OutsourcingMustFall. The state responded with the deployment of more and more police who shot students with rubber bullets and on more than one occasion live ammunition resulting in the deaths of some students, notable being Katlego Monareng of TUT whose shooter has been convicted.  Mlungisi Madonsela in the KZN region is another who was killed during this time.

Other activists saw had state charges levelled against them with Kanya Cekeshe serving a 3 year jail sentence before released on bail with 5 years remaining on his original conviction. There are countless students that have been dismissed for political activities. Universities such UJ only allow suspended or expelled students back under conditions that take away the right to free association or political affiliation on campus.

Although initially running concurrently but following the announcement by the former President Jacob Zuma, that education will now be free to working class students defined as those coming from households earning below R350, 000 per year, student organisations focused on accommodation problems facing students. Although they could have also consolidated whatever victories that were achieved under the #FMF campaign.

The Accommodation campaigns of course seek to address very serious problems within universities. The big campaigns were the #AccommodationIsLand march led by the Wits branch of the EFFSC students. The campaign targeted South Point’s rental fees which exceed the NSFAS allowance for accommodation. 2 years earlier, students in UCT erected a shack as a way to attract attention to the problems of residence allocation and shortage of housing. In that protest student activists called for the university management to address their concerns before they disband since the university already acknowledged and acknowledges the fact that beds are far below the number of students enrolled. 

Although student activism has evidently declined, the issues still cause spontaneous campaigns and for better organised students it appears the relevance of the problem does not get out of sight. To this end, the EFF Student Command appears to have made it a permanent of its political programme on campaign as each year they begin with #SizofundaNgeNkani. They are not alone in the call for free education, but a wave of very strong campaigns for free education within the higher education sector seems to have reached a peak and is now in the trough.

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