For black students at the University of the Free State, the word “exclusion” is probably the most life-changing word they will ever come across in their academic careers.
It is a word that, once uttered to them, has the ability to change their lives, and the change is never for the better. Unfortunately, it is also a word that only a few in the black student community on campus are privileged never to hear uttered; a word whose notoriety is such that, even those who haven’t heard it said to them on campus know the pain it causes.
Black students fear this word because its utterance — mostly in an email with the words “financial” and/or “academic” preceding it — has the ability to remove them from a space that could take them out of the din of blackness they currently live under and elevate them to a human status, as was preached to them from a very young age.
They fear this word because having it said to them means they will no longer be able to reach the end goal that all black students on campus aim to reach: having the tools to help them resemble whiteness — “humanness” — in the best possible way.
Because they were denied access to options available to the humans they find themselves surrounded by, black students, whose nonhuman nature is qualified and perpetuated by the university system, are forced to live in the university space without showing any signs of retaliation towards it, mainly because it is a system they were told might someday give them their humanising degree.
Not only are the black students expected to live in a perpetual nervous condition (a state they find themselves embodying no matter where they are), but must do so without causing any discomfort for the humans.
They live paradoxical lives. On the one hand, their status as university students gives them social advantages over other black people. This is because they might seem one step closer to learning the ways of the white person, which is to say, they are one step closer to becoming human. On the other hand, the very university that is meant to grant them human status also constantly reminds them how much they will never be human, no matter how much they try.
This paradox confuses them. It causes in them a dissonance that distorts their sense of reality.
On certain days they see themselves as an intricate part of the university space and not just passive entities in it. They see themselves as active participants in the space that they believe humanises them more and more as each day passes. But on other days, they doubt whether humanisation is possible — whether their existence in the space means anything to the humans around them.
The black students are alive because they feel for, or want to feel for, those around them. But does this make them human?
The humans around them sometimes greet them, looking at them as if they recognise the “human” in them, but they still doubt whether they are equal. They walk the same corridors, attend the same classes and write the same exams, but does this mean they are as human as the white people? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding, “No.”
The humans around them have something they don’t: a sense of assurance of their position in the space they occupy.
The word “exclusion” doesn’t affect these humans as much as it does the black students. They are happy, these humans, to be where they are and, while the black students spend their time praying never to receive the dreaded email of exclusion, the humans continue living their lives the only way they know how — free from any worries.
The black students were promised access to the university space by those who look like them but those promises are never kept.
It is as if, because they are responding to the calls of black students, the people making these promises are unable to deliver words that hold an ounce of truth; as if blackness taints those words as they are spoken, and nullifies their significance as soon as they are uttered.
The students hear them speak but the words they hear don’t mean anything to them.
It is April and the black students’ time at the University of the Free State is almost up. A few days ago, some of them received the dreaded email informing them to pay up or leave, and their academic futures now hang in the balance.
The word “exclusion” has finally cast its cold shadow over their lives, and they are now left to their own devices as they watch their one chance of becoming like the humans they share their space with slip away.
In the beginning of the year, they were provisionally registered on condition that they pay the debts they acquired the previous year — amounts reaching R15 000 — and the costs of registration.
The same thing happened the previous year and, according to the students representative council (SRC) mid-term report for 2016/2017, a total of 5 678 students faced deregistration on January 30. The number was reduced to 337 by April 12 and, through the SRC and other stakeholders’ efforts, no students were deregistered. But this year’s cohort of black students aren’t as fortunate.
In March, an appeals committee was set up by the university and the students facing deregistration were asked to submit their appeals not to be deregistered. The email they received said they should appeal if they had “a guaranteed sponsor or guaranteed upcoming funding which will cover [their] 2017 debts and 2018 fees”.
Many submitted their appeals and a member of the SRC confirmed that 25 students’ appeals were denied, and they were already deregistered at the time of writing.
Although this number is deemed “low” statistically, it still represents 25 young people whose dreams are shattered because they can’t pay their fees.
For the 25 who have been deregistered — a number that could rise — the only option is to go back home and find a way to pay the university what they owe. The SRC and other concerned stakeholders are trying to change things but, until those efforts produce positive results, the students have no other alternative but to go home.
Many students are questioning the university’s insistence on continuing to deregister students when a promise of free education was made to them the previous year.
They are questioning the existence of an appeals committee that decides which of them is worthy of existing on campus and which are not. They are calling for no student to be deregistered — a call that many say is falling on deaf ears — so that they don’t have to see their friends go home because they can’t afford university.
It has been a week that has seen 25 students fall at the altar of financial exclusion, and promises to see more suffer the same fate — the academic death of many black students.
Thato Rossouw is a second-year student at the University of the Free State