Broken promises ruin chances for Eastern Cape students

Students from vocational colleges in the Eastern Cape are furious about late stipends, bad treatment by security on campus and outdated equipment.

The Department of Higher Education and Training plans to spend R20.4 billion on South Africa’s 50 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges over the next three years.

The colleges, which are spread across more than 260 campuses countrywide, teach trades associated with subjects such as engineering, welding, fitting and IT. The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Blade Nzimande, has lauded them as viable alternatives to mainstream universities.

Recently, to emphasise the importance government has placed on these colleges, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga proposed lowering the entry requirements so that a grade 9 school-leaving certificate would be sufficient to qualify for admission for a TVET course. 

But in the Eastern Cape, TVET students have lodged grievances with the colleges for matters including not receiving their monthly living allowances for three months, being forced to work in outdated laboratories, and not being provided with personal protective equipment when doing work that requires it, such as welding. 

Eight campuses of the Eastcape Midlands College (EMC) – in Makhanda, Bethelsdorp, Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage – were shut down for three weeks in September following student protests. When they protested, instead of talking to them, EMC management hired a specialist – allegedly expensive –  private crowd control security company, members of which, students said, attacked, beat and shot at them at close range with rubber bullets.

Students can also undertake apprenticeships or learnerships at TVET colleges, which purportedly provides them with critical skills and makes them more employable – but only if the colleges are run properly. At EMC, for example, nearly the entire first term of the second semester was lost because students had not been paid their second semester National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) living allowances. They were eventually paid after protesting for three weeks.

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EMC chooses to have NSFAS pay the students’ living allowances. NSFAS administrator Randall Carolissen said the scheme paid the allowance money to EMC for the second semester, but student representative council (SRC) president Sabelo Madlala, 26, said that when students asked for their living allowances, EMC claimed NSFAS had not paid them. 

SRC member Zikhona Sonyaka, 26, said that without any money for food, rent and transport, students had been “chased out of accommodation by landlords”. Many came from small towns such as Queenstown, 400km away. If they were evicted, they would find themselves in precarious situations, far from home and families. Unlike universities, most TVET colleges do not have residences, so students must find their own accommodation.

SRC member Athenkosi Masabalala, 21, said that without allowances, students could not get to classes and did not achieve the 80% attendance record they need to write exams. EMC has subsequently declared an amnesty on the 80% attendance requirement for July and August, but students are concerned that if their allowances are not paid on time in the future, their learning might be disrupted again. 

Money for security but not education

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) deputy chairperson Monwabisi Arthur Wopa, 35, was critical of EMC’s management of the situation, particularly its use of a private security company. “The general attitude from the college is that it is not obliged to explain anything to us. The college keeps hiring private security while the campuses are incapacitated – the labs are under-resourced, and there is a shortage of personal protective equipment for students. The college also doesn’t focus on paying students their allowances, so students don’t understand how the college has money for private security.”

EMC would not provide the name or the cost of the company, which is not easy to identify as it uses  unmarked vehicles. The company has become distinguishable from other mainstream security companies because its guards wear bulletproof vests; carry teargas, stun grenades and guns; and wear no branding or nametags. “The college uses our money for these people,” said SRC member Doc Bonelwa, 27. “We call them ‘Boko Haram’, because they never ask us anything. They just shoot first.” 

Wopa suggested EMC could do more to offer quality practical training, particularly by spending its allocated budget on providing modern laboratories so that students are employable in their fields when they graduate. But Madlala said the EMC did not offer “any practicals, just theory. We enrolled because we were promised that the college offered placements.” 

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The students might have returned to the college, but they have outstanding grievances that have not been resolved, such as the lack of work placements, outdated equipment, and that the college has not agreed to their request that NSFAS pay them their living allowances directly.

SRC member Yonela Tshama, 24, said eight students from the Makhanda campus and four from Uitenhage were arrested during the protest. They will appear in court in late October. “The most painful thing is that those students might get criminal records,” she said. “The college should drop those charges. It was just a peaceful protest and the students were taken out of campus and beaten brutally outside. They were shot at with rubber bullets and traumatised. Some are still having nightmares.” 

Problems like these at TVET colleges need to be ironed out before Motshekga’s proposed influx of younger students into the system. If they aren’t, one wonders how a 15-year-old, grade 9 graduate might cope not only with being away from home, but also with the pressures of budgeting on a modest monthly allowance that is periodically withheld without warning. 

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