The current violent student protests at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) have once again placed the student funding crisis in South Africa in the spotlight. On Saturday (4 March 2023) the Wits student representative council promised to make the university ungovernable if their demands are not addressed. These demands include allowing students with outstanding fees to register, and issues surrounding accommodation, specifically the capping of the accommodation allowances by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). This capping of accommodation allowances by NSFAS to R45 000 per annum led to a demand by students that Wits absorb the R86 million accommodation budget shortfall.
This follows similar disruptions in February at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberly related to student accommodation placements and food. The University management came to an agreement with student leaders and the protests were suspended. The University of Cape Town (UCT) also experienced student protests in February as a result of the “student accommodations crisis, fee blocks, financial exclusion and National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allowances”. There were also protests at the University of Johannesburg related to water issues and NSFAS allowances.
The last few weeks’ protests ominously brings back memories of the #FeesMustFall student-led protests that began in October 2015 in South Africa and continued into 2016, causing hundreds of millions of damages at South African university campuses and leading to a severe trust deficit between students, university leadership and the government. This led to the announcement by former President Jacob Zuma on 16 December 2017, ahead of the start of the ANC’s 54th national conference, that government would provide free higher education in 2018 for the first year students from the poor and working class with a combined household income of R350 000 per year.
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