Duduzile Mkhize: The trauma of the Wits SMS and years of frustration at the hands of university bureaucracy
On the September 29 I woke to an SMS from Wits asking me to vote Yes or No to resuming classes with security. Simple enough? One would think so.
I am student at Wits Business school. I pay for my own school fess. I have one more instalment to make and then I am done. All done without taking a bank loan. Yes, I am a privileged black person.
So the SMS from Wits should have been easy. I have paid a lot of money for my studies so I should be allowed to complete my studies in peace. No. It was a traumatic experience for me.
Let me go back a little to 2008. I registered for a communications degree at the University of Johannesburg. I was accepted at both Wits and UJ but the registration fee was R5,000 at Wits and R1,200 at UJ so I went to UJ. I applied for NSFAS and it was approved. It paid for my fees and books and no transport, rent or food. My mom is a domestic worker while my dad is a farmworker. I am the fifth of eight kids and the only one who has ever set foot at university.
The first year went well. I did well, my marks were good. I was in the Dean list. The university gave me a partial bursary for the second year. All was good – until NSFAS did not approve my second year application as I had a “bursary”.
That bursary left me with R15,000 to top up. It seems like small money but it’s a lot of money. To access the bursary I had to be a student at the university, which means I had to register. I had no registration money. With my good marks, my name on the Dean list, I could not register. A few weeks after classes had begun, the SRC came to my rescue and raised funds to pay my registration fees and those of other students who were almost left behind by the university bus that does not wait for those with no resources.
So my second year began with a semi-bursary and the fear of not being able to raise the balance of the fees. The fear became reality. Family meetings were called. A begging bowl was passed around. R1,000 was raised. R14,000 still needed to be raised. Eventually my brother borrowed from his boss a loan that took him forever to pay back.
Finally I could proceed to third year. I could apply for NSFAS again. Let me tell you, once you have been out of NSFAS, it is impossible to get back. My efforts fell flat. Once again, the SRC paid my registration fee.
For the whole year, I had no text books and no money to pay school fees. My academic records were blocked so I could not access them. I had no idea how I was doing academically, I just kept going. At the end of the year I received an invitation to the graduation. I was happy, it meant I had passed.
Let me tell you what graduation means for poor students. You climb a stage in a gown where they give you a folded white paper that literally says “please pay your school fees”. You smile for your picture that you will hang on your wall. But you leave the university without the one thing you came for. You leave without your degree certificate or academic record.
The university offered me a full bursary for my Honours and a six-month bursary to study in Finland. But there was one small problem – I was owing fees for my third year. This meant I could not register for Honours until I paid up. I wrote to the Dean, Head of Department and anyone I could think of. No one could help. Eventually, I left the university with only my word that I was a graduate.
It took me five years to pay off that third year debt which the debt collector had tripled in amount. That was 2011. The first time I saw my degree certificate and my third year marks was five years after graduation. I took it from UJ and straight to Wits where I applied for my MBA.
Here I am now, being asked to vote yes or no. No SMS has ever invoked such violent emotions from me. If me voting yes to proceeding with my classes means I am sentencing thousands of other students to what I experienced as an undergrad then I want no part of it. I might have some means now but I am not healed yet. DM
Dudu Kkhize is a television producer and Social Entrepreneur.