eSwatini students stand up to failing institutes

Students at the Southern Africa Nazarene University are the latest to protest against inadequate government funding and poor faculty and facilities. The police reacted with live ammunition.

The monarch of eSwatini and his organs of state continue to face mounting pressure from different progressive forces demanding better livelihoods for all residents. But the aspirations of these forces are being clamped down on aggressively through state violence.

Recently, the student representative council (SRC) of the Southern Africa Nazarene University (SANU) in Manzini took to the streets to protest against the appalling and “hostile environment” in which students find themselves.

Frustrated by the institution’s inability to improve learning conditions, the shortage of lecturers, and the university’s poor infrastructure and outdated curriculum – which students say is the perfect recipe for being rendered unemployable after graduating – the SRC mobilised students to shut down the SANU.

The university forced students, some studying more than 10 modules, to write all their exams in one week, says the SRC. It is also allegedly refusing to give out certificates to more than 100 students who have qualified and were funded by the government, saying the students have outstanding debts, according to SANU student and SRC member Xolani Khulekani Maseko, 26. 

‘The police don’t care’

Instead of resolving the students’ issues, the SANU called the police to diffuse the protest and restore order. This resulted in Phephile Precious Sifundza, 20, a medical laboratory sciences student, being shot in the leg with live ammunition while passing by. 

Sifundza wasn’t part of the protest. “The police don’t care,” she says, adding that officers fired live ammunition without any warning.

She was admitted to the Mbabane Government Hospital, which is reported to be experiencing shortfalls of essential medications, along with other hospitals throughout the country. 

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Sifundza’s leg broke just above the knee. She has yet to undergo surgery to repair the break as the doctors have told her the bullet wound has to heal first. 

Sifundza says she is displeased with how quiet the university has been, adding that SANU vice-chancellor Winnie Nhlengethwa told Sifundza that she was only made aware a week after the event that the police had fired live ammunition. This is untrue, says Sifundza, as Dean of Students Affairs Sonnyboy Mamba visited her after she was hospitalised.

Now Sifundza is fighting to recover quickly before her final exams start on 2 December. “I am actually scared. I am praying to be able to walk again normally,” she says. 

Familiar police brutality

Employing deadly tactics to crack down on dissenting voices is something all too familiar in eSwatini. In February 2017, students at the University of Eswatini (Uneswa) protested for similar reasons.

The police were called to crack down on the crowd. However, when they noticed that the student protest was gaining momentum, an officer drove a Casspir in the students’ direction to disperse them, says Swaziland National Union of Students president Mlamuli Gumedze, 28.

Ayanda Mkhabela, a Uneswa student, fell as she was running away and the casspir drove over her, leaving her permanently injured and able to walk only with difficulty. Mkhabela is still unable to speak about the incident, saying only that she still feels deeply traumatised and that her emotions weigh heavy.

“Even today, we still ask ourselves, is the government really that heartless? I am sure whoever injured [Mkhabela] was promoted, because now students are really scared to mobilise,” says Gumedze. 

On 15 August, students from the country’s three major universities – the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, the Eswatini Christian Medical University and Uneswa – mobilised to address these universities about fixing issues similar to those raised by the students at SANU. The police allegedly detained and tortured seven students who participated in the protest. Three more were injured and needed medical attention.

‘Monsters in our communities’

Thokozani Mazibuko has been a correctional services officer for 16 years and is currently the secretary general of the Correctional Services Association of eSwatini. He says “it’s difficult to reconcile with the community” when police officers are used to crack down and muzzle radical movements. 

“We’ve been made to be seen as monsters in our communities. As small as eSwatini is, we are relatives. The probability to be a relative is nine out of 10. If someone’s not related to you, they might be related to your wife, your grandmother, your uncle,” he says.

The SRC members have been suspended for challenging the SANU, raising tensions further. The students have made 12 demands of the SANU, which include taking Sifundza to a private hospital and paying for her medical costs, and allowing the suspended student leaders to write their exams.

The students have also demanded that the government give all admitted students a scholarship, immediately release learning materials such as books, arrest and prosecute the police officer who shot Sifundza and increase the food allowance for government-funded students, which currently amounts to R18.50 a day.

Starvation and desperation

Though students face similar challenges at a tertiary level, food shortages among students funded by the government tops them all, says Gumedze.

“When you arrive at university, coming from a background like mine, there is no food in university,” he says. The daily meal allowance is too little and Uneswa prohibits students residing in its accommodation to cook in the dormitories.  

Gumedze says they are supposed to buy food from one of the restaurants at the university, which is expensive in relation to the R18.50 that the government allocates students per day.

It’s been three months since students registered for and commenced their 2019-2020 academic year, but the majority of their allowances have still not been paid.

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“It’s difficult to study and concentrate. The only thing you think of is what will you eat? Since you’re not allowed to cook, it’s either you starve or you engage yourself in criminal activities,” says Gumedze. The government cut the allowance by 60% in 2011 and these allowances may decrease further as the government said recently that students will be paid what it deems fit, he adds.

A number of male students sell marijuana while many female students turn to sex work to earn enough money for food and other necessities, says Gumedze. This is a reality shared by students from other universities.

It seems justice is distant as the country’s socioeconomic issues multiply rapidly amid a lack of political will to transform or disburse resources where they are needed most.

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