Tertiary education was a given for me by virtue of the kind of school I went to and the aspirations my family had for me. What was never clear to me until high school was how this would be realised. By the time I was in high school my mother was no longer working and my father was out the picture. This meant little financial support in our home (we lived on handouts pretty much and I had a bursary in Grade 10 that covered most of my fees and by the time I was in matric my sister had found a good job).
Because I wanted to be a teacher, a university was the only option I had. I applied to Rhodes deliberately, it wasn’t too far from home and the application fee was cheap at the time. Upon acceptance I found out about the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). When Rhodes had visited our school when I was in Grade 11 they made no mention of this. I guess by looking at the audience they could tell that we all had trust funds waiting to usher us into our futures. But I applied with blind faith hoping that somehow I could scrape university existence the same way I had scraped my existence until this point. The joys of NSFAS was that I didn’t have to start payments until I was earning a particular amount of money. In the meantime, if I passed all my courses every year I would get a 40% discount on the money they paid every year (which was a book allowance that didn’t always cover the necessary books, tuition and residence/rent money).
I now have a student loan of ±R70 000. For many South Africans this is the norm. I haven’t even got a steady job and already I have debt.
The strange thing about NSFAS is that no-one tracks you down to find out if you are earning anything after graduation. At the beginning of this year I had to send the emails to inform NSFAS that my teaching assistant money had exceeded the benchmark they had placed. I had to make the phonecalls, send the faxes, send the emails etc. Someone else would consider me crazy for doing this: if no-one is checking up on me, why should I make these payments from the little that I earn from the department anyway? I don’t know. Part of me never wants to get caught and part of me recognises that I used taxpayers’ money for my education so the least I could do for South Africa’s taxpayers is to be honest.
I consider myself the lucky few who had the option of NSFAS as the criteria is not a given for many people who want to access higher education in South Africa. And even those who are able to get the funding, academic exclusion is always looming over their heads because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds not only on an economic level but also on an educational level. Access to higher education in South Africa is not a given for many South Africans, especially many working class black South Africans and I know this first hand.