Aid system fails good students

Migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking students are denied government funding for a university education, even if they were born in South Africa and come top of their class.

When Given Kibanza’s parents fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the mid-1990s, they did so in the hope of giving their future children a better life with more opportunities.

But now 17-year-old Given, who was born in South Africa and raised by his mother when his father died shortly after his birth, is left wondering how he will fund his first year of studies at the University of Cape Town.

Given matriculated at the top of his class at Brettonwood High School in Umbilo, south of Durban, last year. He achieved 92% for mathematics, 95% for information technology and 94% for physical sciences. He was the top achiever at his school and said he decided at a young age to focus on mathematics and science.

Given said he hoped to combine his interests in medicine and robotics in the future by pursuing a career in biomedical engineering.

“This goes to show that despite my background and my family’s financial situation, I’ve never allowed this to stop me from achieving my utmost best results. I don’t want to allow my family’s financial situation to stop me now either,” he said.

Student aid no-go

Given’s parents came to the country as refugees but he has permanent residency in South Africa. Despite this, he does not qualify for funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

He moved into a University of Cape Town residence this week and intends to register for a degree in mechatronics, even though he does not have enough funds to pay the fees, while he waits to hear if any of his applications for scholarships were successful.

He is very clear on the fact that although he is in a difficult situation, he is not a victim of his circumstances. Given said he draws inspiration from his mother.

“It pretty much comes from my mom. I’ve seen so much she’s had to sacrifice and do for us. When we got here [in 1997] my dad started working … But after he passed away [in 2003], everything they planned to do just went away.

“So ever since 2003, my mom has been in and out of so many jobs that you can literally consider it part-time jobs,” he said. “Despite all of this, she continued working hard to make sure we never went to bed hungry.”

24 January 2019: Given Kibanza, a student at the University of Cape Town, is the son of refugee parents. Although he has permanent residency, he does not qualify for student funding. (Photograph by Barry Christianson)


Given’s story is not unique, it’s one shared by many refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in South Africa.

Randy Seda, 21, has had to work part-time jobs, improvise and use crowdfunding initiatives, and rely on the goodwill of benefactors to see him through his tertiary education.

Seda, who moved to South Africa with his mother and sister from Kenya more than 10 years ago, is in his final year of an accounting degree at the University of Pretoria. He still needed around R85 000 for the year’s tuition at the time of writing.

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“For me, it makes no sense. I haven’t failed, my record is sublime, my CV is outstanding and I was in leadership positions – and literally the only reason they can’t help me is because I’m not a South African citizen. I can’t understand it, but I guess it is law and life,” he said.

In 2017, Seda’s mother suffered a stroke and temporary paralysis on the right side of her body. He said this changed his situation even more as the pressure to succeed at university increased.

“She had temporary paralysis on the right side, from head to toe she couldn’t move anything. She had loss of speech and also loss of memory. She didn’t remember my sister for a whole month, the only person she remembered was me,” he said.

‘It’s your future’

“Usually my marks are really good, but the last two years I had to focus less on school and also do part-time work to take care of myself. When I’m at varsity there’s no money coming from home, because my sister takes care of my mom and then I help out here and there when I can,” he said.

But Seda was still hopeful he’d raise enough money in time to register at the university.

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“I did it last year, so I know I can do it again … I sleep about three hours a day because I’m constantly thinking about it. And when I don’t think about it, the only thing I can do to distract myself is study. So now, for instance, I’ve done the whole first semester’s work. And that’s just because I have been stressed,” he said.

“But I try and stay positive. At the end of the day, there are a lot of people in this situation. You can choose to sit around and cry about it, or you can do something about it – and that is my approach. There’s no point in sitting around and crying. It’s your future and if you don’t take it seriously, no one else will do it.”

Change funding policy

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said: “As stipulated by government mandate, NSFAS funding is only applicable to South African citizens with a combined household income that does not exceed R350 000 per year. The funding criteria is a government policy.

“NSFAS system does not allow non-South Africans to register on systems, therefore when an applicant cannot register, then they are unable to apply,” he said.

Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa spokesperson Abigail Dawson has urged government and NSFAS to consider making funding available to refugees and asylum seekers.

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“It is important to note that refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing their country of origin for their lives and protection … Accepting refugees and asylum seekers, and granting them the ability to live a fulfilling and productive safe life in South Africa, should be a premise on which tertiary education should be made accessible,” she said.

“NSFAS should consider making funding, scholarships and bursaries accessible to recognised refugees and asylum seekers in pursuing their mandate of addressing historical discrimination, and avoid further discrimination of already disadvantaged but qualifying students.”

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