Nightmarish living conditions at a rural university

As I sit down in my office to write this article, I am struck by the silence. There are no student voices, no taxis racing up and down. The lecture halls and campus roads are empty. The rural-based South African University of Zululand, situated in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, has temporarily ceased all academic activities. Why?

Because heavily armed criminals attacked students who reside off-campus in KwaDlangezwa village, the area where the university is situated. They demanded laptops and cellphones. Videos depicting the aftermath of the attacks left me and many of my colleagues shaken.

The scenes captured resembled a war zone. There were bullet holes and broken doors, and students screamed in the background. Voice notes recorded during the attacks were heartbreaking. You could hear the distressed voices of students pleading for help and gunshots in the background. The entire incident was horrific and deeply saddening.

The purpose of suspending all academic activity was to help students recuperate from this trauma. The university provided counselling services to people who were affected. Regrettably, this is not the first incident of its kind.

Students targeted

These events took place earlier in 2023. However, students have frequently been the target of violent crimes in KwaDlangezwa. Off-campus students are a particularly vulnerable target. They are vulnerable because there are no adequate security measures to protect them where they live.

Student protests in South Africa, often at city-based higher education institutions (like the universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Nelson Mandela and the Witwatersrand), are more often than not connected to concerns about student accommodation and financial assistance.

As with many other countries, South Africa severely lacks student housing. A 2010 report said the number of beds available on campuses nationwide amounted to only 20% of all enrolments. Universities are unable to meet the increasing demand for student housing.

A legacy of apartheid

To understand what is unfolding at the University of Zululand and other rural-based universities, we must first step back and look at the historical foundations of the system that established segregated education in South Africa.

Apartheid, a policy of institutional racism, set the stage for the development of segregated higher education.

Apartheid policies and spatial planning became instrumental in separating different racial groups and their institutions.

The Extension of University Education Act of 1959 led to the establishment of universities for blacks (black Africans, coloureds and Indians).

This was consistent with prior acts such as the Population Registration Act of 1950, which classified South Africans into four racial groups (black Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites); the Group Areas Act of 1950, which designated residential areas according to race; the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which developed a separate education system for black Africans from their white counterparts; and the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, which determined access to and use of facilities by race.

These apartheid regulations resulted in the core-periphery geography of higher education in South Africa. Core universities are historically advantaged institutions located in economically viable towns and cities. Universities in the periphery are those in townships and rural areas that serve predominantly black students.

The spatial separation continues to haunt and shape the comings and goings of persons affiliated with universities in South Africa.

I have alluded to the history and geography of higher education institutions since some of the difficulties, particularly accommodation challenges, stem from these earlier segregation policies. The government’s choice to locate some universities in rural areas has had a lasting effect on many of these universities’ functionality.

University of Zululand

Let’s look at the University of Zululand, an institution created by the apartheid government in a village within traditional authority land.

The establishment of the university coincided with the creation of several homelands, another piece of apartheid apparatus intended to crystallise separatist ideology. The village barely had the infrastructure or developed land needed to foster and complement the university setting and, ultimately, become a meaningful university town or village.

There were no plans to integrate the university with the surrounding village, and it became an island surrounded by a community it hardly identified with, and the feeling was mutual. The attempts to integrate the university with the neighbouring town of Empangeni, or to have a satellite campus there, would have contravened South African laws.

But back to today’s main area of concern. The University of Zululand, like most institutions in South Africa, has experienced a meteoric rise in student numbers and has severely fallen short of campus accommodation.

The scarcity of on-campus housing, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, drove desperate students into the village to search for accommodation.

Villagers welcomed them with open arms because they saw an opportunity to earn a living. Villagers initially constructed backyard structures within their homesteads. In terms of material composition, these structures resembled their homes.

These were predominantly modest rooms made of bricks, blocks and, occasionally, mud. Some lacked interior and exterior plaster, ceilings and paint. Students shared pit toilets with their host families, and the rent they paid was quite low.

This arrangement brought students and villagers closer together. I am convinced that villagers provided students with what they could afford and that ‘extravagance’ wasn’t in their vocabulary because their homesteads were basic.

Around 2005, the university experienced a spike in student enrolment, and housing demand quickly became a critical concern, and sparked a practice which dogs the university to this day.

Detached accommodation

In response to this influx, villagers started building standalone student residences detached from homesteads. The development of these student residences wasn’t regulated, and there were no discussions between the owners and the university.

Most of them had small rooms with multiple occupants. Some of these standalone structures were built by outsiders (coming from neighbouring towns and townships).

The move was motivated by a desire to maximise profits at the expense of student safety and comfort.

Student rooms dating from that time contain a single lightbulb, socket, and bed. There is no provision for a study desk or a locker for clothes. Such structures have one or two showers and one or two pit toilets or flush toilets shared by 10-50 students on site.

The roof of this toilet cubicle is on the verge of collapsing, Image provided

There are no kitchens. Student bedrooms are used for sleeping, studying, cooking and bathing. Students who reside in some of these poorly built structures don’t use showers. Instead, they boil water and use small plastic basins or buckets for bathing. Due to safety concerns, most female students avoid using the toilets at night.

Safety has always been an issue for students residing in these standalone structures. I have spoken to a number of students who have been mugged either on their way to these residences or during their sleep.

Most of these standalone structures do not have caretakers. Those with caretakers have fewer experiences of being attacked. In some residences, waste is never collected, and students have to live with piles of waste and the stench that comes from accumulated waste.

Many students live in appalling conditions in dilapidated structures. The piles of waste are never collected, Image provided

Ministerial investigation

In 2010, the minister of higher education in South Africa established a Ministerial Review Committee to investigate housing provision in the higher education sector.

The investigation revealed significant backlogs in housing provision, and even some on-campus residences were found to be abysmal. In the absence of restrictions, students are frequently at the mercy of unscrupulous private providers who take advantage of their desperation. In order to protect students, the report advocated the regulation of private accommodation.

Lately, there has been an increase in the number of decent buildings in KwaDlangezwa. Most of these newly built structures have been accredited by the university, and they house mainly students who get financial assistance from the government. Accreditation has greatly improved the living conditions of many students.

They have adequate rooms, showers and toilets, and certain security measures have been implemented. One would have assumed these new residences are secure, but the events I write about at the start of the article show that most off-campus residences are still insecure. The cost of rent to stay in these new structures is also somewhat high.

Crushed expectations

In 2019, students went on the rampage after criminals attacked one of their own in the village. They shut down the institution and KwaDlangezwa, demanding that the university, the South African Police Service, and the community take action to safeguard them.

During subsequent meetings, locals promised to improve security by providing stronger doors and hiring caretakers. However, they also noted that several poorly constructed standalone structures are owned by uncooperative and sometimes hard-to-trace owners who reside outside KwaDlangezwa.

Unfortunately, adequate security measures have not been implemented to protect students off-campus, despite a similar protest erupting in 2022. Students feel that nobody pays attention to their plight.

Some believe that their rural location renders them inconspicuous or that their history of protests causes others to hastily categorise them as troublemakers.

Several students said they never anticipated that their time at university would be a life-or-death situation. They are a generation whose aspirations for a better university experience have been crushed by inadequate housing, deplorable living conditions and criminals who endanger their lives.

With the Student Housing Infrastructure Programme (SHIP), a combined effort between the government and major actors such as financial institutions, the Department of Higher Education and Training has recently prioritised the provision of additional on-campus student accommodation to all public institutions of higher learning.

The University of Zululand’s capacity is scheduled to be increased by at least 3,500 extra beds, relieving the pressure. But, while plans are being developed and new residences are being constructed, students in KwaDlangezwa continue to bear the brunt of crime.

What South Africa needs urgently is a student accommodation and safety summit at which concrete measures for village housing and student safety are discussed.

Nothile Ndimande is a lecturer in the geography department at the University of Zululand. Her research areas include student geography, rural geography and sustainable development.