"We want what is due to us. We are tired of waiting. Our studies can't wait," more than 200 angry university students demanded as they took to the streets on Wednesday to protest over National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding issues.
Highlighting that it was "almost exams", they marched to the NSFAS head office in Cape Town. Members of 14 student representative councils (SRCs) in the country participated.
In a joint statement on Monday, SRC leaders said some students had still not received funding, roughly three months into the academic year, and that others were "wrongfully defunded".
University of the Western Cape SRC president Mandla-Onke Notyawa said students were at their wits' end and added that NSFAS did not provide proper communication on the way forward.
"Students are suffering. We require the allowances to ensure our studies are done properly, and without the requirements and proper communication of when allowances will be paid out, is unacceptable. We have students that travelled from other provinces to be part of this march so that our concerns are heard," Notyawa said.
He said communication was sent to the NSFAS office several times but that officials "disrespected them" by not responding.
Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) SRC leader Mpfunzeni Ramano said students demanded that NSFAS engage them on the way forward and say when allowances will be paid out.
Okuhle April, SRC president at the University of the Free State, said students were affected by several issues, namely non-payment of study material allowances, meals and accommodation, as well as the introduction of a new payment method.
NSFAS announced it would distribute student allowances through its bank accounts as part of its digital transformation – a move that students are rejecting. They claim it will result in "more delays of payouts".
"Students are suffering. We are here to express our dissatisfaction with the way NSFAS is handling situations with students. We cannot year in and year out be speaking about the same issues affecting all students," April added.
Student activist Axola Toto said students rallied together to raise funds to hire transport so that they could join the march because they believe "enough is enough."
He added that some students have resorted to sex work to afford food.
"It's heartbreaking how we, as students, are being treated," Toto said.
At Wednesday's march, some students held placards that read: "Must I pay accommodation with my vagina?" and "My mom was a prostitute, must I resort to it as well?"
NSFAS chief financial officer (CFO) Masile Ramorwesi and the scheme's spokesperson, Slumezi Skosana, received the memorandum after students demanding that an official should come out to accept it.
Reading out a list of demands, University of Cape Town (UCT) SRC president Hlengiwe Gugulethu Lisa Dube said students were calling for:
- the decentralisation of NSFAS administration;
- an immediate end to the NSFAS direct payment system and for institutions to continue their payment system to students;
- that a cap on accommodation and allowances be scrapped entirely;
- an immediate release of the funding list;
- the removal of the less-than-60-credits rule as per the NSFAS funding renewal guidelines, and immediate full funding for all students affected by the rule; and
- the immediate removal of the board and CEO of NSFAS, and for NSFAS to be put under administration.
"The South African higher education sector continues to be plagued by a crisis over funding and accommodation issues since the dawn of the democratic dispensation. This crisis continues unabated even though we were made a promise in 1994 that 'the doors of learning shall be open for all,'" Dube said when she read out the memorandum.
City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said the students were not granted permission to march.
"A call request was made only by the University of the Western Cape students asking for permission to march. The request was not granted because it was not done properly. To call a day before the march does not constitute a reasonable application," Smith added.
Western Cape police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Pojie said no incidents were reported and that Public Order Police were deployed in the CBD to monitor the event.
Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen said the university has been having ongoing discussions with the SRC since the beginning of the year about issues related to NSFAS.
According to Viljoen, the institution has helped students who have struggled with accommodation.
"The university will continue to engage with the relevant entities, including the SRC, to work towards finding suitable accommodation for all students, including NSFAS-funded students," Viljoen added.
On Wednesday morning, Stellenbosch University SRC representatives and students were given an opportunity to engage with Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Buti Manamela about the NSFAS issues.
UWC spokesperson Gasant Abarder said no demonstrations took place on the campus.
Abarder added that the university had discreet programmes to assist with food.
"However, we are an access university with a low fee base so what we can do is limited by the fact that we're a historically disadvantaged institution (HDI)," he added.
NSFAS officials vowed to respond to students' demands within 48 hours.
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