Our stories: the burden of student debt

Fresh protests have rocked South African universities this year, after historically indebted students were prevented from registering to continue their studies. One bystander was shot dead last week, allegedly by police, during last week’s protest.

About R10bn is owed to 26 institutions. This is not a new issue, however. It seems poor planning and lack of foresight have led to the current impasse.

The explain team looks at their experience of studying in South Africa, and the battle to pay university fees. Read our stories below.

Nontshi Shange: Hope sparks – then flickers out and is lost

By Nontshi Shange 

When you’re in matric and the application process for university begins, one of the most common things you’ll hear is that many of you won’t get into the university you hoped for – or perhaps, any university at all. Naturally, this leads to the assumption that the hardest part of your university experience will be getting accepted in the first place. But when the day comes and you receive that acceptance letter, for many of us, the tough part is just beginning: that day our financial burdens begin to harden and our entry into generational debt begins. 

In 2015, my first year at Rhodes University, the Minimum Initial Payment for registration was R41 000; this payment was to be made before I entered the gates of the university or even chose my majors. I remember having the discussion with my mother about the MIP: “It’s ridiculous but it’s doable.” That same year I learned through my peers that it was not only ridiculous – it was also impossible for many. 

In 2015 the veil of ignorance from my middle-class upbringing was lifted off my eyes and I found myself crying in my res room with my friend Bontle, a senior in my residence when I realised it was not only about being poor. It was also about being black and the generational debt that plagued many of us, setting us back before we could even put our best foot forward, years after the end of the apartheid regime. 

“It was also about being black and the generational debt that plagued many of us”

Nontshi Shange

I heard the stories of my peers who were first-generation scholars, the first glimpse of hope for their families; but, due to financial exclusion, the spark of hope was slowly dying. I watched as the first Fees Must Fall protests turned violent and found myself running through tear gas and the screams of hope for a brighter future. 

It has been six years since that first protest. There have been promises of free education and changes to payment methods. Yet once again, in 2021, students are putting their lives on the line. History is repeating itself as students all over the country protest historical debt and financial exclusion, just as my peers have now begun their journey into the working world with thousands of rands of student debt and full-time jobs that offer R3 500 (that is, if you are lucky enough to get a job).  

The solution to a problem that began before many current students were born cannot be found overnight. But, somewhere between the years of protests and futures lost due to financial constraints, there is yet to be a clear path as to how this problem will be solved. Now a life has been lost in the crossfire. When will enough be enough?

Nontshi is a content producer at explain.co.za . Follow her on Twitter @NontshiShange.

Lesego Chepape: Suddenly, you feel ‘stuck’ in the missing middle

By Lesego Chepape

As soon as I learned I’d been accepted to university, I instantaneously started imagining where I would be in the next 10 years. I imagined the relief I would bring to my family. I knew that the university acceptance was a win for my family, myself – and my community.

But I was then faced with the displacement of coming from a middle class family. Although we were never without, we were not well-off either. My father supports four children and five grandchildren. There are other household expenses that need to be tended to and of course fees that need to be paid.

I applied for Nsfas hoping for some kind of financial relief; my application was denied and it all went downhill from there. Between paying for fees, transport, food and accommodation, it became an uphill battle and I found myself not knowing where to get help. Every institution turned me away based on the fact that my parents fell into a particular income bracket.

I watched my parents scramble, amassing the little that they had to get me through tertiary education. Even that was not enough. It is no secret that youth unemployment in South Africa is rife; I tried to get work to fund my education, but it came to no avail. However, giving up was not an option.

I watched my parents scramble, amassing the little that they had to get me through tertiary education. Even that was not enough.”

Lesego Chepape

The psychological aspect of trying to get through tertiary, feeling as though going to school is causing more harm than good to your family, is extremely taxing.

Now I ask, what’s supposed to happen to those who fall behind the barriers of the middle class, meaning they can’t get Nsfas funding for their education but still don’t have enough to qualify for bank loans or the like. The truth of the matter is that the cost of living is quite high and breadwinners can only stretch themselves up to a certain point. Parents everywhere try to make a plan. My parents tried. I tried. But it’s not easy – and so, students have to keep fighting.

Lesego Chepape is an Intern at explain.co.za. Follow her on Twitter @ChepapeLesego.

Tebogo Mabuela: Nsfas gives us money. It must offer guidance, too.

By Tebogo Mabuela

I am a Nsfas-funded student, and I can see both the pros and the cons in the system. What bothers me, and probably other students, is how confusing it can be. For instance, when I first qualified for the scheme, it was in the form of a loan; then higher education was, the government announced, made free – and my loan apparently became a bursary. If I sound unsure, it’s because I am! 

The idea behind Nsfas is solid. A university student can receive up to approximately R30 600 to cover “allowances” – for instance, accommodation and textbooks. Tuition fees are covered, too. Here’s my concern, though: the money may be paid over (and that itself isn’t always a simple process), but Nsfas doesn’t offer much guidance about what comes next. What’s the best way to budget that money? How can I plan for things going wrong, or accounts not being settled by Nsfas directly? We’re just not prepared. 

When I prepared to start my first year, I encountered problems in registering – because I thought Nsfas would cover the registration fee. It didn’t, but I didn’t know that ahead of time. Since then it’s been smooth sailing with my academics (my fees are covered) – but accommodation is another story. Nsfas just doesn’t pay, and then universities issue us with notices to vacate the premises, which sparks protests. 

The scheme also isn’t consistent. A friend of mine struggled to get funding until the third year of her studies. In that time she wasn’t able to access the equipment we could through our Nsfas funding: cameras, microphones and voice recorders, which any journalist in training needs. She also had to pay for her own textbooks. It all added so much stress.

Nsfas has so many students depending on it. The question is, how is it preserving the money going out and coming in?

Tebogo Mabuela

Nsfas has so many students depending on it. The question is, how is it preserving the money going out and coming in? What will happen in the next five years if it claims not to have money even now? Will there be more downsizing? Funding cut back from more courses, as has happened with teaching? There must be a way to bridge the gap between debt and students getting a quality education. 

Tebogo Mabuela is an Intern at explain.co.za. Follow her on Twitter @tebogo_mabuela.

Verashni Pillay: The nightmare of paying university fees in SA

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. 

Verashni Pillay is the founder of explain.co.za. Follow her on Twitter @verashni