SOUTH AFRICA: Students speak out

Political leadership fine-tuned in the corridors of South African universities seems not to have lost its revolutionary bent since the days of the anti-apartheid struggle. At least that is the impression one gets as students loudly, sometimes violently assert their grievances. But though students are still fighting for their rights, they are leaning towards economic and individual demands.

Heated debates, protests and strikes - with some turning violent and leading to arrests and damage to property - have occurred on campuses this year. Such disturbances have become ritual at some of South Africa's 23 universities. Pressing demands with protests has become an art, and it happens every year.

In February, the Durban University of Technology had to close campuses during a strike by students and staff, with the former demonstrating over lack of accommodation among other things and the latter over pay. There were also protests at several other institutions.

Students at the University of South Africa (Unisa) threatened to make the institution ungovernable. The reasons? There were problems with mid-year exams and with study materials, and a clash with Vice-chancellor Professor Barney Pityana. Students accused him of running the university like a spaza (tuck) shop, but the suspicion was that they were against his perceived support of an opposition political party.

Students in South Africa were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle from the 1970s, and former student leaders are still leaders today - in parliament, government, the private sector and universities.

Christopher Ryall, President of the Students Representative Council at the University of Cape Town, said political competition that still exists on campuses encourages students to engage with the social and political issues facing the country.

Ryall belongs to the Democratic Alliance Students' Association, which is aligned to the official opposition and plays second fiddle to student organisations supporting the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at most other universities.

However, he told University World News: "A large proportion of students are very apathetic. Mainstream politics in some ways polarises student bodies but it also breeds greater political understanding." A problem is that student concerns are often dismissed by managements - until simmering discontent explodes. Listening to them comes last.

Ryall painted an overall picture of student problems in South Africa today - lack of residence space, financial and academic exclusions, and basic service provision. Students are also concerned about the plight of out-sourced workers.

He noted that the University of Cape Town provides better facilities and services than most other institutions. The university increased financial aid this year to cushion students from disadvantaged backgrounds - but Ryall argued that more could still be done by the government, universities and the private sector coming together.

"When students protest about high fees they are justified. I believe that when university management has to increase fees it has to get a go-ahead from student representatives. Fees should never be an obstacle to getting an education in the new South Africa," he said.

Francisco Matsomane, President of the SRC at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology's (CPUT's) Bellville campus, told University World News that most students who want to study at his institution are from the rural Western Cape. "They come from poor families and the registration costs, which go up yearly, affect them."

Matsomane, a representative of the ANC-aligned South African Students' Congress (Sasco), said the university authorities were reluctant to accept students with loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) as funds are released later in the year - but the university relented.

CPUT enrolls 11,000 students and it can only provide accommodation for 2,000. The shortage is so acute that some students are forced to squat with friends in their rooms. Instead of continuously fighting with the authorities, Matsomane said the SRC sourced an extra 244 beds to accommodate more students.

Historically disadvantaged universities - institutions created to train black people during the apartheid era - are most affected by high tuition fees, said Sakile Mvana, Secretary-general of the SRC at the University of the Western Cape.

He argued that there is a mismatch between the vision of this historically disadvantaged university, articulated through its Institutional Operational Plan, and the socio-economic status of its students "in terms of the affordability and sustainability of the financial demands that will come with the changes".

Students have always felt that universities do not sufficiently take into consideration their needs and challenges, said Mvana, who is also a Youth Development Officer for the ANC.

The University of Western Cape enrolls close to 15,000 students annually but can only provide accommodation for 3,900 students. Mvana pointed out, though, that the problem of providing accommodation for students is shared by many countries around the world, including some developed countries.

The cry of students for more and better basic services continues.

"We need the latest materials. Some versions of text books are outdated," said Matsomane at CPUT. "The university, however, has its own understanding of the situation. They [university authorities] say the library only provides additional material and if a student needs a book they should buy it for themselves."

Realising they might end up spending more time engaging in fights for better resources and facilities than actually learning, Matsomane said the SRC approached the NSFAS, which agreed to provide loans to buy books. The scheme is also sponsoring coupons for students to buy food in selected supermarkets.

But all this was only after students took to the streets on 7 May 2009. Students went on the rampage for improved service delivery and facilities. The chaos resulted in the arrest of five people, four of whom were charged with public violence.

Matsomane said students wanted recreational facilities, furnishings and laundry facilities. In some cases students were forced to buy their own electricity when power from their rooms ran out in the middle of the month. Research students wanted improved access to the information technology centre, but the university was worried about the security and financial implications of such a move.

For Ryall at the University of Cape Town, problems affecting students can only be solved if management takes student leaders seriously. "We have to make sure that we represent student concerns effectively. Students need to be seen as the primary stakeholder of the university."