Wits University Students Strike Against Debt

Wits University students at a rally – because of debt many will be unable to continue their studies

STUDENTS at Wits University in South Africa are embarking on a strike, warning that returning students may be unable to continue with their studies this academic year, because of student debt.

Wits, UKZN, UFS and other institutions too intend to disallow students with historical debt to register, citing financial strains on their costs of operation if they do not recover this money from students who owe it.
Meanwhile, University of South Africa (UNISA) students have taken the university to court for not filling over 20,000 seats because of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) refusal to provide financial aid. The issue of financial exclusions at institutional level calls into question NSFAS’s funding as a result of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s austerity budget.
NSFAS has not been funding deserving students whose parents’ income is below R350,000, as was promised. And the old problem of debt that NSFAS failed to write off continues to persist amongst working-class students even after the 2017 #FeesMustFall victory.
Going forward, funding will undoubtedly become an issue. NSFAS has already announced that it has cut its budget by R6 billion, and requires an extra R4 billion to cover costs of an academic year extended by Covid-19.
Even though other returning students are guaranteed funding as long as they meet HE Minister Blade Nzimande’s undisclosed criteria, first-year students are not guaranteed bursaries.
SAFTU has repeatedly said that the problem of funding of public services is due to the neo-liberal development path that government is pursuing. Despite Mboweni insisting during the budget speech that the budget was not an austerity budget, the cut in the higher education allocation proves the finance minister wrong.
Due to the neoliberal path and the cuts flowing from it, cuts on expenditure of higher education push management of universities to rely on tuition fees – making it a fight to recover student debt in order to cover operational costs of universities which rise yearly with inflation. It is precisely for this reason, also, that universities have increased their fees for this academic year.
To fight back, students have to align themselves with workers and their organisations to resist cuts in education. This must culminate in a united front against austerity which has seen the collapse of the public sector, lack of public services in which hospitals are understaffed and under-resourced, formal housing is being replaced by the old hated ‘toilets in the veld’ site-and-service system, and even the water minister recently admitted that the share of South Africans with reliable water access today is lower than it was in 1994.
It is shameful and makes a mockery of socio-economic rights, that a tyrant finance minister cuts corporate taxes and allows massive capital flight instead of helping the citizenry when investment in education will pay off for the entire society.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) blamed government for the country’s dire economic state. This comes after StatsSA announced a 7% contraction in the country’s growth during 2020. That is the worst in South Africa’s recent history, and follows a year of uncertainty amid the Covid pandemic. Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla believes the country’s economic woes are of the government’s own doing.
‘We’re not shocked by these numbers, especially the statistics that show that the economy shrunk by 7% in the year 2020,’ he said. ‘Of course, Covid played a huge role in decimating not only the South African economy but the global economy. But having said that, this is really about the policy choices that we make because while everyone else around the world was dealing with the same problems, some economies decided to change direction to adopt policies that were about protecting the most vulnerable – and they used both the fiscus and the monetary policies to really support the economy.
‘Unfortunately, in this country, none of that really happened,’ he says. He adds that despite their attempts at salvaging the situation, government’s interventions contained a myriad of mistakes. ‘To a certain extent,’ he added, ‘we do appreciate and acknowledge the role that they played in really dealing with the pandemic, something that was not anticipated.
‘But even in trying to do that, you can look at some of the mistakes that were done. If you look at the distribution of R350 social grants, government wasn’t prepared. If you look at the UIF Ters fund, it was mired in corruption; you can look at the procurement of PPE, it was mired in corruption.
‘They could have done things better. They could have really saved money and at the same time saved lives.’ He believes the damage done to the economy during the country’s lockdown is evident.
‘Sadly for the economy, they suffocated it instead of stimulating it. All of the policy interventions that were proposed, they really ended up suffocating the economy.’
Sizwe Pamla says the federation has made some proposals of its own to try and turn the country’s fortunes in 2021. ‘We should abandon the austerity policy framework that government has really been doing. It’s up to the companies really. If they feel the need, they will invest the money in South Africa,’ he says.

  • At the same time Cosatu was to present its submission on a National Traffic Amendment Bill to Parliament, and to its Portfolio Committee a day later.

Every year over 14,000 people die unnecessarily on South Africa’s roads due to reckless driving: about 25% of accidents are a result of drunk driving.  Others are due to unroadworthy vehicles, persons who should never have received driver licences, etc.
The condition and safety of roads suffers from overloaded trucks putting drivers’ lives at risk and costing the state billions. All of these have resulted in a Road Accident Fund in deficit to nearly R300 billion; further burdening the fiscus, squeezing taxpayers and suffocating the economy.
This long-delayed Bill provides critical interventions with its provisions.

  • Financially-beleaguered State-owned defence industrial group Denel has been granted yet another time extension to try and achieve compliance with the Labour Court order of August 4 last year, the Uasa trade union has reported.

The Labour Court had then ruled, in a case brought by the union, that the company had to pay its workers their full salaries and fulfil all its other contractual obligations towards them, regarding the months of May, June and July last year.
The Court has now given Denel a further delay, until July 23, to come up with a practical programme to comply with last August’s court order. The Court also ordered Denel to present it with an affidavit, reporting its progress in complying with the court order, a minimum of ten days before the Court reconvened to consider the matter.
‘The delay is painful for Uasa members in Denel’s employ who are in dire financial straits due to partial salary payments since last year July,’ observed the union. ‘The fact that (the judge) postponed the case again proves that Denel has no solid game plan to remedy the situation with its employees.’
Uasa also reported that Denel had invited it to a meeting ‘to discuss the way forward’.
The union is one of the oldest in South Africa, being founded in 1894 and was previously known as the United Association of South Africa. It represents nearly 73,000 workers across a range of sectors and is currently a member of the Federation of Trade Unions of South Africa.

  • The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) has previously approached Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane to intervene after the state-owned electricity company Eskom launched an investigation against its general manager of special projects, Mark Chettiar.

Chettiar reported allegations of corruption at Eskom to Corruption Watch and he has allegedly been victimised within the company.
SAFTU said Eskom chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer had pressed for the payment of R42m to construction company Aveng by Eskom, despite the latter not fulfilling its contractual obligations.
SAFTU called for Chief Operating Officer (COO) Jan Oberholzer to be placed on immediate suspension and subjected to disciplinary action led by an independent person appointed through a transparent process.
SAFTU notes that the COO Jan Oberholzer was subjected to a similar internal disciplinary process (as being proposed for the CEO) while the COO was still at Eskom and not under suspension.
The COO was cleared of all charges relating to corruption, dishonesty, conflict of interest and abuse of power by an internal investigation using an external advocate from Eskom’s own pool of advocates.
The findings of the investigation have not been made public nor subjected to any external scrutiny allowing for complete control over the disciplinary process to be managed by the Board and to some extent influenced by the COO himself who was not suspended during the time.
SAFTU is of the view that a similar process is being undertaken by the same Eskom Board to whitewash claims of racism against the CEO, Andre De Ruyter, using an internal investigation and an advocate from Eskom’s pool of suppliers to achieve a pre-determined outcome.
Had adequate corporate governance been followed the CEO would have been suspended immediately and a neutral, objective external party appointed to investigate very serious matters of racism and procurement.
It is apparent the Eskom Board does not seek to resolve the serious issues with both the CEO and COO but rather to absolve themselves because the Board appointed both the CEO and the COO.
This ignorance of independence and objectivity in investigating these serious allegations may lead to the conclusion that the Board is complicit in covering up the allegations and ‘managing’ the investigation process internally while the implicated individuals still influence the investigation.
Lastly, SAFTU is of the view that the suspended Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) Solomon Tshitangano may be suffering the same fate as Mark Chettiar as a whistleblower, and implores the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) to ensure that the CPO has adequate legal representation by suitable counsel at the SCOPA hearings to ensure that all facts and evidence are presented rather than another whitewashed view of the serious allegations at Eskom relating to racism and procurement.