On the 26th of November, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande announced that students who are funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will receive a ‘living’ allowance for the extended months of the academic year. However this is only applicable to students who are yet to complete the academic year. The academic year was extended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which at one point threatened to collapse the current academic year.
The Minister however quickly shot down those hopes by announcing that students living off-campus will not be given additional funding to pay for their accommodation while students that stay on campus will not be liable to pay for the extra months that they will spend on campus while completing the academic year. The crisis came to a head when allowances had to be loaded into the student accounts. Rhodes University, University of Fort Hare, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Vaal University of Technology, and the University of Free State have been institutions where the crisis has exposed itself in the most graphic form. This has been the powder keg which has led to the recent wave of protests across these institutions of higher learning.
At the University of Fort Hare the crisis has not only exposed itself in the most graphic form but has also exposed the degenerate state of the management and the Student Representative Council (SRC). To paraphrase George Orwell, it is difficult to tell the difference between the pigs and the men; this means the students see no difference between the management and the student representative organ. The NSFAS issues at the University of Fort Hare predate the current crisis, with many students who have been funded finding themselves having to go to the streets due to the incompetence of the Financial Aid Office. The incompetence illustrates itself when the ‘funded’ students find themselves financially excluded.
In February 2020, the 2019/20 SRC through a mass meeting announced a strike until issues which mainly circulated around the issue of funding, particularly NSFAS funding were resolved. The strike however did not reach its logical conclusion due to the COVID-19 Lockdown. A student at the University of Fort Hare, East London Campus, Noluthando Maqonga* (This is not her real name) detailed her struggles as follows, “I haven’t gotten allowances this year, and it’s December time. So you can imagine a person who has been funded for 2018 and 2019, and then it's 2020 and you find yourself waiting for allowances.” Noluthando* also had this to say, “If the SRC had been in consultation and worked closely with the students, this strike would have been avoided.” She also added, “I don’t have funding for 2020, and I don’t have a place to stay.” This is one in a thousand other stories that remain buried and avoided by the bourgeois media.
Another student at the University of Fort Hare, East London Campus, Ncumisa Makhaza* detailed how she was initially funded for this year, and then was told that she no longer qualified for funding due to a discrepancy in her surname, which she had thoroughly cleared with the institution, “I used to be married so I had two IDs. When I applied, I used my original ID, which is the ID I used for my matric exams. I qualified for funding, however when I checked again later this year, October, they told me that they have not approved my funding due to unverifiable surnames. However, I received meal allowances like other normal students up until November.” Her removal from the scheme was shoddily explained by NSFAS and when she enquired about the appeal process, the NSFAS assistants said it is impossible to appeal her case. She further stated that she was approved in July and received allowances, however on the system she does not appear as a funded student.
These two stories are not only a sign of the crisis ridden NSFAS but also a constant feature of education under capitalism. The commodification of education has created a crisis whereby students find themselves in debt due to an incompetent and corrupt financial aid scheme, likewise with the Financial Aid office which is the middleman between the students and NSFAS. This relationship at the University of Fort Hare between NSFAS, the financial aid office, and the students has proven to be a dialectical relationship whereby the antagonisms between these entities have sharpened further.
The sharpening of these antagonisms has led to the SRC being perceived as a tool used by management to protect themselves from the students. These betrayals by the SRC came to a head when a report was published by the Daily Dispatch in which the president of the SRC, Siphiwo Ngcenge told the journalist who was interviewing him that the SRC had ‘excused’ itself from the violent protest, and it was led by opposition political heads. This is not the first time he has taken a position against the interests of the students. In May 2020 during a radio interview, he said the Interim SRC is opposed to the ‘frivolous’ strikes of the students, and in a television interview this year he said the SRC is going to protect the integrity of the management. This is coming from a member of the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCL SA). However nobody should be surprised knowing the recent history of the YCL and the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) in the institution.
The NSFAS crisis has once again highlighted the need for a socialist education system where education will not be commodified but used as means to develop society, and ultimately humanity. It is on this basis that we shall continue calling for free quality socialist education.