While South African students may have shown mass solidarity with the #FeesMustFall protests and the national shutdown over the past few weeks, the issues they want addressed vary from campus to campus.
Rhodes is the smallest public university in South Africa with only about 7 500 students. Grahamstown, where it is situated, was a bastion of English military expansion. It has a huge monument celebrating the 1820 English settlers, and the university itself occupies many of the former military buildings. This is the landscape through which black students walk, where 91% of their professors are white and 90.5% of the unskilled staff black.
Since the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University has seen an increase in public dialogues, political graffiti and sit-ins. It was the Rhodes Must Fall movement that sparked the creation of the Black Student Movement (BSM) at Rhodes.
On a warm October night, a group of students gathered underneath the Rhodes clock tower to discuss the future. About 200 of them sat in a circle as the sun set. In low lamplight, they debated after a long day of protesting. This was the national shutdown.
The students’ day had begun at 2am when they began rallying themselves in support of a national tertiary education protest about increasing fees, which affect students like Dumisani Payi, in his final year of BCom at Rhodes. He was unable to continue his studies at one point because of financial reasons, and he recalls crying on the steps of the Rhodes clock tower. But he kept looking for help to pay the R40 000 registration fee so he could stay at Rhodes.
He had been funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for the three years, a process he described as “tedious”, but he is grateful for the funding. “I mean, they were helping me pay my fees,” he said. But in his fourth year, the funding dried up because the coffers at NSFAS were depleted. Many students faced the same problems he did. “I have friends who were unable to come back because they could not get funding,” he said. “Some just don’t know how to get around it, and some just become defeated and give up.”
At Rhodes, key issues at the heart of the students’ struggle include the transformation of the curriculum and the academic staff, and the thorny matter of access to student accommodation.
Rhodes has two short holiday periods during its four semesters. The first is usually around the beginning of April and the second in early September. During all vacation periods, the university hosts conferences and uses the residences as for accommodation.
The rules about students leaving at the end of term are extremely strict. They are usually be locked out of the residences on the Saturday after term ends, and it is a punishable offence to stay any longer than allowed. These short holidays often place a dire financial burden on the poorer students, especially those who live outside of South Africa, such as Gorata Chengata from Botswana, who says she has to spend a huge amount to travel home for a week.
Students can stay in res during vacation times if they obtain permission – and pay a hefty fee. There was a meme circulating around Rhodes at one point that pointed out that a plane ticket to Berlin could be purchased for the same amount.
Chengata has been Amina Cachalia House for almost four years. “It’s often exhausting for me to travel home during short vacations, so I prefer to stay,” she says, explaining that if students pay to stay, they have to move out of their rooms and into another res.
Anna Kharuchas is a member of the BSM. Dressed in a long black coat, she describes her role within the organisation as administrative, and refuses to be identified as anything other that just a member. She helped organise vacation stays for students who needed it in both April and September.
“I want to make this university a space where black people and white people feel they have ownership of it,” says Kharuchas. Because the university forcing students to leave campus over the holidays, she feels this is clearly not the case as it stands. She says there has been a lack of interest by management to take the organisation seriously.
Another Amina Cachalia resident, Siyamthanda Stone, has been in residence for five years, and in that time has shared the building with many students who are unable to afford it. “You see, some people come in in first year and then they leave in the middle of the year because they can’t afford it. It’s not nice to see that,” she says. In 2015, the cost of staying in residence was as much as R57 000 for the year.
When The Con contacted the university’s department of student affairs, Colleen Vassiliou was too busy to comment, and media relations officer Catherine Deiner said the university had been aware of this issue for some time, but that providing accommodation would have direct financial implications for the university.
“These costs are not factored into the annual student fees, and thus students wanting to stay in residence during the short vacations need to book and pay to stay in a residence set aside for students who need to stay on campus during the vacation. The university has been hesitant to increase all fees to allow for accommodation during the vacations as this will affect student fees substantially.”
Deiner said the university has had a system in place to assist students on financial aid. She emphasised that during the September vacation, the university assisted all students who indicated that they needed accommodation.
Kharuchas says that although the university helped in this regard, the help was sporadic and often seemed to result from intense prodding by the BSM.
In response to the accusation that students feel unwelcome during these times, Deiner said that for the university to ensure it has enough accommodation, catering and cleaning services, as well as wardens and subwardens on duty, it needs to know how many students require accommodation during the vacation. “The number of students who require accommodation free of charge has financial implications for the university,” she said.
Deiner said that for students to book their vacations accommodation, all they needed to do was go to the department of student affairs or a staff member in the vice-chancellor’s office and add their name to a list. “The students’ names and student numbers were added to a list, and they then received letters that they could take to the conference office and book vacation accommodation free of charge,” she explained.
When The Con asked Deiner about the perception that the university did not take these concerns seriously, she said it was aware of the pressure and stress students face in organising transport home or accommodation during these short vacations, and does not mean to dismiss these valid concerns. “The university is urgently looking into long-term solutions to this challenge, which may in one proposed solution mean reorganising the academic calendar,” she said.
Kharuchas points out that the university has been looking into solving these issues for some time. In his statement on the issue, Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela said the short vacation issue had been brought up in March 2015. When it will be resolved remains to be seen
Main Pic by Kate Janse van Rensburg
This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project