Durban - KwaZulu-Natal student leaders have said that while they support a nationwide shutdown of universities over funding issues, they would not protest this week, as the province was mourning the death of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.
The call for a nationwide shutdown, at the countries 26 universities, was made by South African Union of Students (SAUS) as they said a meeting with the Department of Higher Education and Training, and the National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) representatives, to discuss a range of issues, proved to be fruitless.
The student union is demanding the scrapping of historical debt, free education, funding to the post-graduate level, and for qualifications and academic records, which are withheld over student debt, to be released to students.
In KZN yesterday, at the Durban University of Technology, about 50 students held a peaceful gathering outside the Steve Biko Campus in Durban, under the watchful eye of law enforcement authorities.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Howard College and Westville campuses were empty and there was no protest action taking place at the Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT). Student leaders at those institutions said this was due to them being respectful of the fact that the province was mourning the death of the king.
Further afield, students burnt tyres and shops were forced to close in Johannesburg, as student protesters took to the streets yesterday.
University of Johannesburg student protesters blocked roads and burnt tyres outside the university’s campus in Auckland Park, while protesting students from Wits University called for shops to be closed as they marched in Braamfontein.
In Pretoria, Tshwane University of Technology students said they would not be taking part in the shutdown due to the ongoing exams. But at Unisa’s Sunnyside campus students gathered in the afternoon and blocked the main entrance of the institution with burning tyres.
DUT Student Representative Council (SRC) president Zabelo Ntuli said that even though they were fully behind the shutdown, they had to respect the passing of the king.
“Our action not to join the protest today is not that we are not part of the movement, we are. As universities in KZN, we also decided to be part of those who are showing respect to the king,” he said.
Ntuli said that they had written to the university management and gave them a deadline of today, before 4pm, to respond to their issues.
“If they don’t respond positively, we will have to take serious action after the king’s funeral. This is a fight against financial exclusion,” said Ntuli.
UKZN student representative council (SRC) president Siyabonga Nkambako reiterated the same sentiment, and said they were also paying their respect to the late king.
Nkambako said the SRC was “100% behind” the shutdown.
UKZN Pietermaritzburg campus SRC chairperson Lungisani Mthalane said it was respectful to allow a mourning period for the king.
“After a period of mourning and His Majesty is laid to rest, we can then start looking at how we organise ourselves, especially around this campus,” he said.
Meanwhile, UKZN said yesterday that it had decided to suspend the academic programme for the week, until Friday.
UKZN’s acting executive director at Corporate Relations Normah Zondo said that the decision was taken after consideration of the ongoing dialogue between the government and student organisations.
Zondo said remote online registration for 2021 would continue for all returning students and first-entry undergraduates.
DUT said that management was continuing to liaise with the elected DUT SRC on various registration matters and said its academic programme would only commence on March 29.
MUT postponed its registration, which was initially scheduled to start yesterday, to March 23, to allow it to deal with NSFAS issues.
Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande said that the department was not in a financial position to be able to support institutions, to clear all student debt for fee-paying students.
Nzimande said they were aware that many families were struggling to keep up with fee payments and had been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, he said, given the government’s difficult fiscal situation, all government departments had been subject to budget cuts.
“We are aware that many institutions are doing what they can to assist the students in need. However, institutions have to remain financially stable to continue to operate effectively and financial decisions are made at the university council level,” he said.
He said that the historical debt of NSFAS qualifying students was being addressed through NSFAS and institutions.
Nzimande added that NSFAS qualifying students with historic debt can register when they sign an acknowledgement of debt form, while the process is under way.