By Verashni Pillay
The country is in the grip of yet another shameful sequel to the student protests that first rocked it in 2015.
Then, as now, I have marveled at the courage of the #FeesMustFall protesters.
As with all movements, there are the extremities that can be questionable. The politicisation of the protests, some of the opportunism and the most egregious violence didn’t sit well with me.
But the protest at its best struck a deeply personal note for me. I realised these young people were fighting for a world I wasn’t even able to envision when I was in their shoes.
In 2007 as a first year Rhodes University student I, too, relied on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas).
My ambition to study journalism at Rhodes was a dramatic one: there was no way my parents could afford it. There is much talk now of students who fall into the “missing middle” – their parents aren’t quite poor enough to qualify for full funding, but aren’t financially secure enough to pay their children’s fees. I was in that boat. Nsfas only covered a fraction of my fees and my mother, a government social worker and the main breadwinner, couldn’t cover the rest. My parents didn’t own property – we rented our house – and so could not stand as surety for a sizable enough bank loan to cover the difference. So the bank only contributed another fraction. I managed to get a second bank loan thanks to other family members, but it still left me with a gap of R20,000-00 or so to plug in my undergraduate years. I remember feeling like I would be sick from the stress of it all, and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish my degree. At one point, Absa made a mistake with my name when registering my student loan and didn’t release the minimum initial payment for my next year of my degree. I spent the December holidays in intense anxiety, fighting the red tape of a seemingly faceless institution.
Organising the rest of my fees became a game of Tetris. I would work hard and win various bursaries and rebates by actively working in the university’s SRC and other leadership positions and doing well academically. Then I would be told that the money would be taken off my Nsfas loan capital amount, to reduce the amount I’d have to pay back one day. “But I need the money now!” I’d plead – not some time in the future when I had a paying job and could pay them back. It didn’t matter. All my academic bursaries disappeared into the debt I owed Nsfas.
I was nearing the end of my three-year degree and there wasn’t a feasible way for me to get my honours covered financially. I would have to leave university without it, which wasn’t the end of the world, but I really wanted to do my honours. I made an appointment with the dean of students to plead my case. He told me there was nothing he could do.
I eventually ended up working three part-time jobs: as a sub-warden, freelancing for a national student publication and working for the university communications department. I also, after writing to everyone I could think of to sponsor my degree, won a Media24 bursary to completely cover my last year, in exchange for working back for the company after I graduated. It was my little miracle. But I kept the three jobs. I knew I needed them to save for my move to Cape Town to work for the company, to a city I’d never been to and where I had no connections. I also knew I’d have to pay my way for a month before I received my first salary. Those three jobs covered my bills till I received the bursary… and the rest went into savings for my first month’s bills in the Mother City.
When I look back at those tumultuous years in my early 20s I’m struck at how alone I was. There wasn’t a sense that anyone else was facing these problems. Perhaps we kept it to ourselves, bound by a ridiculous sense of propriety and shame. This, despite the fact that I was the Academic Counsellor on the SRC and was mandated to help students excluded on financial grounds get into the institution. I did so diligently. But each case was isolated. The Fees Must Fall protesters have inspired with their unity of purpose, and their fight for a better world. In their refusal to accept an unjust status quo that demands too much of young people. But I feel sad that it took so much for me to graduate. And sadder still that so many are still facing the same problems.
But I also have questions: when I left university I had three loans to start paying off, one being to Nsfas.
I did that, studiously. Despite some of my classmates laughing at my plan to do so, before we graduated. “No one pays Nsfas back,” they’d say. But we have to, I’d rebut: to fund the next round of students. They’d shrug. It was government’s problem.
It seems that all sectors of society are failing current and future generations of students: government, of course, which somehow did not see this year’s obvious crisis in the making when budgets were first cut in the wake of Covid-19. Big business and civil society, who are only recently coming to the party to find innovative solutions. And then us former students ourselves. Yes we have to pay black tax too and have so much else to juggle. But if we can, we should also pay back the money.