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For protesting the non-payment of their Nsfas allowances, 93 students from Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in East London were arrested and charged with public violence, but later released. Students who are beneficiaries of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) protested by burning tyres on Tuesday after the payment of their allowances was delayed yet again.

In 2022, Nsfas introduced a new direct payment system for student allowances. After being piloted at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, the new payment system was rolled out at universities in June 2023. Funds are now paid out through no-name companies TeneTech, Norracco, eZaga and Coinvest Africa. An investigative report, compiled by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), found that of the 20 mandatory requirements for financial service providers, the four appointed by Nsfas to disburse funds only met five.

The new system by the service providers and their unreliability has been said to be behind the delays in payment. High bank fees also add to the costs borne by students.

The arrested WSU students were greeted by great celebrations when they emerged from the rear court exit just before the close of business on Wednesday. “We are students of WSU and we are gathering in front of this court today because our colleagues have been arrested simply because they participated in a peaceful protest,” said 19-year-old Yandiswa Sidima. From Harare, Cape Town, she said out of the 93 arrested students, 27 were men while 66 were women.

“It’s a third week now, since 10 September, our monies have not been paid by Nsfas and we are hungry, and we wanted to get the attention of the university administration. We cannot go and study while we are hungry and other students are in jail,” said Dimakatso, a consumer science student from Whittlesea.

“Nsfas has failed to make payment. It has been a month now and students are frustrated. The university administration knows very well that for working class students to live and survive they are solely dependent on Nsfas. WSU is a university of black students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Vuyolwethu Ndela, a member of the Student Representative Council (SRC). “Both Nsfas and the university must be blamed. The university has an upper hand on the whole issue because it is not transparent, and it is also guilty of stealing the money from us,” he said.

Emihle Chako from Tsolo revealed that life is very hard on campus since students are faced with poverty among other challenges. “Since May, other students have not received their monies and even this month. The student allowances help us to buy not only food but stuff like roll-on. Now I don’t have money to buy roll-on and to maintain myself. My family members back at home are not working,” she said.

According to Sbonelo Vezi, a leading student activist, the student movement has welcomed the release of their fellow students from custody and the decision by the magistrate to withdraw all the charges against them. He was adamant that their struggle for the immediate payment of allowances will continue and that those students who were injured will have to sue the police for their brutality. “The aim of the violence unleashed by the police against innocent students is to intimidate students not to fight for their rights”, he said.

According to a report by GroundUp, the university said that they are not to be blamed for the students’ predicament as the matter is between the students and Nsfas.