SA students in Russia face eviction and being left on the streets with no food to eat

File image.

File image.

Published Oct 8, 2022


Johannesburg - South African students in Russia are involved in a war of their own. It’s them against the Mpumalanga Department of Education, their landlords and the universities they attend.

The desperate 229 students face eviction and possibly expulsion from universities across Russia because their benefactor hasn’t paid their rent and tuition fees.

They are fully funded by the Mpumalanga Department of Education as part of the Provincial Human Resource Development Strategy.

Independent Newspapers spoke to one of the students in Moscow, Victoria Maheso, who pleaded for help. The final-year applied mathematics and computer science student was told by her landlord that if her outstanding rent is not paid by Monday, she’s out on the streets.

“Our livelihoods are in danger. What am I going to do? I cannot even ask my family for help. I support them with the stipend I receive. I worked hard to make it to my final year. The people who brought us here are not helping. We are coming to you for help,” said a distraught Maheso.

The We Are South Africans foundation (Wasa) highlighted the plight of the students, who are studying medicine, veterinary science, engineering, aeronautical science, cybersecurity and IT. Wasa founder Gilbert Martin said it’s shameful that the students now face eviction and being left on the streets with no food due to the bungling of the Mpumalanga Education Department.

“Most of the students come from very poor backgrounds and were placed in Russia under the contract and guidance of a company awarded a contract to manage them in Russia. The Mpumalanga Education Department cancelled the contract earlier in the year with no alternative, citing it as expensive, and then started placing demands on students to open certain bank accounts, getting invoices from universities, all the documents which we have seen. Several students were kicked out of hostels and Russian landlords have not been paid for months, resulting in the students being evicted and/or threatened to be evicted,” he said.

Spokesperson for the Mpumalanga Department of Education Jasper Zwane said they are doing everything humanly possible to salvage the situation but could not offer guarantees that Maheso and some of her fellow students won’t find themselves homeless and kicked out of university, come Monday.

“In the past the placements of the students to various institutions was facilitated by a contracted implementation agent, and that contract has since expired as of March 2022. The department advertised a tender in October 2021 to solicit an implementing agent. The department did not receive any responses and accordingly it was re-advertised this month. The challenge that the department is currently addressing is about the payment of accommodation and tuition,” he said.

But Zwane’s words offer little comfort to Maheso and her peers.

“We were told a few months ago by our agent that the Mpumalanga Department of Education stopped working with them. For the last three months, some of the students received their monthly stipend directly from SA and not from our agent as was the case before. I can say with certainty that at least 20% of us have not received our stipends for the last four months,” Maheso added.

The department in turn tells a different story about the stipends.

“It is important to note that the department has since increased the stipend from R4 000 to R5 000, per student, per month to mitigate the challenges that the students are experiencing as a result of the conflict involving Russia and Ukraine. During all this, the department has been able to process the monthly stipend for all students except for 15, whose banking details were not fully operational. Other options are currently being explored to resolve the matter,” said Zwane.

Wasa and Maheso’s account of students being evicted and kicked out of university and forced to return home differ vastly from what the department said.

“The department was able to bring back home 56 students for recess for three weeks in August and were assisted to return successfully back to Russia in September. There are 68 students who have already graduated this year and we brought them back to the country in September,” Zwane said.

Again, Maheso contradicts the version offered by the department.

“I know that some of the students who graduated could not even pay to get their qualifications translated. You receive your qualifications in Russian and you have to get them translated before you return to SA. Some students left without doing the translations because they had no money. The ones I spoke with said they would do the translations when they are back in SA and have money,” said Maheso, who is due to graduate next year.

But the department maintains that no students were evicted or expelled.

“As of now the department does not have information of students whose academic contracts have been terminated as well as students who were evicted from their respective places of accommodation. The department is currently in advanced discussion with the South African Embassy in Russia and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) in an effort to accelerate the payment of tuition and accommodation for the students. The department has established open lines of communications with students and they are being updated on progress on a constant basis,” said Zwane.

He added that full payment of tuition fees is expected to be concluded by October 14, as required by Russian universities. Dirco did not respond to calls, messages and emails from Independent Newspapers.