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Education

As the New Academic Year Begins, Student Protests Are Sweeping Across South Africa


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South African universities have become a hotbed of violent confrontation between students and management in recent years.

The wave of protests and demonstrations has gained force particularly since 2015, when students embarked on the nationwide Fees Must Fall protests.

Whether it’s at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), Durban University of Technology (DUT), Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town, the University of Limpopo or others, the issues are always the same: higher education is too expensive considering that poverty is on the rise; students with outstanding fees aren’t allowed to register or graduate; and services like accommodation and walk-in registrations are inadequately planned for.

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Just last week, a student at DUT was shot dead when violence broke out during student protests over financial exclusion, registration fees, and lack of accommodation.

DUT’s senior director for corporate affairs, Alan Khan, said the cause of death and details of the incident were still subject to police investigations.

The protest at DUT isn’t the only one staged by students this month either.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal suspended academic programmes on Monday last week after a vehicle was set on fire during a strike, and in Gauteng, Wits students went on a hunger strike on Tuesday over financial exclusion and accommodation. The university cancelled classes two days later.

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Back in 2017, then president Jacob Zuma announced that the government would provide free higher education to students from households with a combined annual income of up to R350,000 (about US$25,650) starting in 2018.

President Cyril Ramaphosa committed to meeting this objective in his first state of the nation address (SONA) in 2018, saying: “Starting this year, free higher education and training will be available to first year students from households with a gross combined annual income of up to R350,000.”

“Government will continue to invest in expanding access to quality basic education and improving the outcomes of our public schools,” he added.

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Free education is financed by National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which provides bursaries and low-interest loans.

However, like many public institutions in South Africa, the NSFAS is plagued by issues that include poor administration and incorrect transfer of funds.

As a result, applications for financial aid are sometimes suspended or delayed, and some applications are simply rejected.

Addressing parliament in December last year, the minister of higher education, Naledi Pandor admitted that NSFAS is getting more applications than it it can handle. There were more than 400,000 applications for the 2019 academic year between Sept. 3 and Dec. 3 2018, she said.

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"On average, NSFAS received more than 3,200 applications a day over the period from September to December, with the number reaching as high as 30,000 a day [over the last two weeks of November 2018],” she said.

Ramaphosa acknowledged these challenges in his SONA 2019, and said one of his government’s top priorities is ensuring that NSFAS becomes functional and able to meet the financial needs of undergraduate students.

He said: “The scheme is being phased in over a 5-year period until all undergraduate students who qualify in terms of the criteria can benefit.”