Eastern Cape students miss exams amid protests

A long-standing grievance between the lecturers’ union, management and the student representative council of Eastcape Midlands College in Makhanda has boiled over, disrupting exams.

Tension between the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), which represents teaching staff, the student representative council (SRC) and management at the Eastcape Midlands College (EMC) in Makhanda has deteriorated to the extent that the college has taken out interdicts against the SRC and Nehawu.

A broad interdict was granted to the EMC in the Grahamstown high court in September, halting the SRC and students from causing disruptions on campus and barring them from interfering with the wellbeing of any college members.  

In September, eight EMC campuses – in Makhanda, Bethelsdorp, Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage – were closed for three weeks following student protests, during which EMC management hired an allegedly expensive specialist private crowd control security company that, according to students, beat them and shot them at close range with rubber bullets.

Students lodged grievances with the college for such matters as not having received their monthly living allowances for three months and inferior facilities. Additionally, according to the SRC and Nehawu, many students missed their exams owing to the protests, and will not pass the academic year.

Nehawu began its own protest action in October, when the college suspended economics lecturer Nkosiyekhaya Sikutshwa, 59, after he was filmed expressing his support for protesting students. 

10 October 2019: Hospitality student Sinethemba Sito (left) with her mother, Xolelwa. Sinethemba was told at the start of the year that she’d been granted a NSFAS allowance, but alleges that she never received any of the money.

Muzzling staff

Sikutshwa’s colleagues held a go-slow to support him. He then received a letter of suspension from EMC management, which said he may not “spread any further derogatory comments about the college and its management”, may not speak to students or the media and may not use “any means of communication with intent, or implied intent to harm the reputation of the institution and or management”.

Department of Higher Education and Training spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi says his department and Nehawu are working on bringing the dispute to a close. He adds that government believed the interdict against the students and SRC should remain in force and “it can only be reconsidered if the situation is back to normal, with acceptable levels of safety”.

He adds that Nehawu agreed that ordinary bargaining council disciplinary procedures could be applied to Sikutshwa and that the EMC must reconsider any suspensions not in accordance with bargaining council regulations.

But Nehawu’s EMC Makhanda campus shop steward Nziwethemba Hlikihla, 34, denies that there was agreement between the union and government.

He says EMC management told him more lecturers who sympathised with students were facing suspension. Students told Hlikihla that management had asked them to write affidavits specifically stating that lecturers prevented them from writing exams. These would allegedly be used as evidence to suspend the lecturers. “Some students said their affidavits were torn apart by management when they did not write what management wanted,” Hlikihla adds.

“This year has been very hectic and chaotic,” says a Nehawu-member lecturer, requesting anonymity. “We have not taught the students because most of the time they are striking. The problem here is maladministration. Parents are even saying they want the Hawks to investigate,” the lecturer says, adding that lecturers at the EMC operate under “appalling working conditions”.

SRC weighs in

SRC president Sabelo Madlala studies at EMC’s Makhanda campus. He says college management is “running the college like a spaza shop … There is no professionalism at all and we feel very bad to be in a situation like this.” 

Madlala says many students have not received their National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) living allowances. This is R2 675 per month for students living on campus, or R1 025 per month for students living at home. The money is paid to the students through the EMC. 

On 4 October, parents of EMC students travelled to Makhanda to complain about their children’s treatment. They were allegedly locked out of the campus for most of the day, then asked after a short meeting to return on 9 October.

Xolelwa Sito, 39, the mother of hospitality student Sinethemba Sito, 21, says that when they returned on 9 October, the management of EMC kept them locked out all day.

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Sito says her daughter was told at the start of 2019 that she had been granted an NSFAS allowance, but alleges that she never received any money. NSFAS did not respond to questions about Sinethemba Sito’s allowance. Sito is grateful her daughter’s landlord agreed to accept her full rent for the year at the end of the year. 

“Other landlords kick the students out,” she says, adding that when [female] students have no money for food, they are vulnerable to the advances of men.

Another hospitality student, Anelisiwe Mqela, 18, says she was recently paid her student allowance after not receiving it all year. But she adds that the college’s facilities, such as Wi-Fi and computers, are inadequate.

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Principal’s response

In the application for the interdict against the students and the SRC, EMC principal Charl van Heerden says exams had to be cancelled on 20 and 30 September and again on 4 October because of “further unlawful conduct by students”. 

He adds that Nehawu members stopped marking internal exam papers and allegedly told students on 4 October “not to enter the examination venues as there would be no exams scheduled for the day”. 

The EMC also successfully applied for an interdict against Nehawu in the Port Elizabeth labour court on 8 October, preventing the union from disrupting classes on campus.

Van Heerden denied that the college had withheld NSFAS funds. He says some students may not have been granted NSFAS funds. “We have no students who are qualified beneficiaries who have not been paid,” he says. “We have paid 82.7% of the total NSFAS allocation for the year and we should have been at 75% by now. We are not sitting on any money, we have paid beyond the target.”

He says the NSFAS ruled that students could not be paid a living allowance if they had not attended 80% of their classes in a given month. He adds that the meeting with parents for 9 October was rescheduled, but Madlala had failed to confirm their attendance.

EMC deputy principal of corporate services Vukile Hewana says he and Van Heerden have turned the college around financially. They moved the EMC from a disclaimer audit opinion, which means insufficient information was provided to the college’s auditor to enable a proper audit, to an unqualified opinion, where the audit was implemented and no irregularities found. 

Hewana says Madlala misled students by telling them they would get another chance to write exams if they had missed them because they were protesting. He explained that rescheduling exams was impossible because internal exams had to be written before external exams began, and the dates for these external exams had been fixed by the education department.

He denies knowledge of students being made to write affidavits blaming lecturers, adding that most Nehawu lecturers had not joined the go-slow and were back at work. “We have no issues with Nehawu,” he says. “Our mandate as a college is very clear: to deal with the scourge of unemployment. We are trying our level best to make sure we impact positively.”

Van Heerden says only a small group of students have not written exams and “the real issue is the … ill intent of the SRC president”, who allegedly wants to “destabilise the college for political leverage”.

Madlala responds to this allegation: “I have nothing to gain politically when students protest. Students have decided to protest because of the arrogance and mismanagement of the institution. Lots of students did not write exams because of the wrongdoing of the college management that led to the student protest.” 

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