This article offers an insight into how Nigerian students who have been stranded in South Africa since 26 March 2020 are coping during the COVID-19 imposed lockdown. It will unpack the experiences of Nigerian international students studying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) when the pandemic hit and the role played by the National Association of Nigerian Students in South Africa (Nanssa).
Many international students studying across South Africa’s higher educational institutions were caught by surprise by the COVID-19 lockdown. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, South Africa declared a national state of disaster on 15 March 2020 and imposed lockdown measures based on the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 on 23 March 2020. In response to the national directive from the government, on 17 March, the University of KwaZulu-Natal also suspended all contact classes and asked all international students living in school residences to vacate the campus. On 18 March 2020, a communiqué was issued by the office of the UKZN Vice-Chancellor based on the outcomes of a meeting between the Executive Management Committee and the Student Representative Council. The communiqué highlighted measures on vacating school residence promptly, at the latest on 20 March 2020, and transportation arrangements for the evacuation of all students. Moreover, the communiqué stated measures to transition to online learning, suspend the academic programme including tests, reschedule of all academic programmes, and cancel the April 2020 graduation ceremonies.
When the initial lockdown started in South Africa on 26 March 2020, international students thought that within a month it would end and they would return to school quickly. How wrong they were. One month soon turned into a couple of months with a further extension of the lockdown. To manage the pandemic, from March till September 2020, different lockdown levels – called ‘five alert levels’ – and different restriction levels were introduced at the national, provincial and district level. Alert level 5 was the strictest that limited public life and all nonessential services such as teaching and learning were suspended. At alert level 1, from 1 October 2020, the border opened again and international flights resumed, which allowed international students from countries with a low-risk rate of COVID-19 to enter South Africa. However, restrictions of movements during the national lockdown also meant the closing of visa application and renewal processing centres. Thus, all study visas, which might have expired since the start of the lockdown in March were automatically extended until 30 June 2020, and further, until 31 October 2020, so that international students do not enter into an irregular situation, have access to social services such as their bank accounts, and avoid becoming ‘undesirable persons’.
Playing a crucial role in helping international students navigate their experience in the host country are international student associations that are central to their social life, as well as academic and welfare support. To have an insight into how Nigerian students who remained in South Africa were coping during COVID-19, between March and August 2020, I was able to follow conversations on the experiences of such students on social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp groups, created by UKZN international students. I also followed discussions and conducted an informal chat with UKZN Nigerian international students on Telegram specifically created for Nigerians. It was deduced that the lockdown impacted international students’ cash flows because they lost their part-time jobs. This is even worse for postgraduate students that are self-funded and married with children.
Also, to facilitate online learning, UKZN provided free data bundles to all registered students. However, unregistered students could not benefit from accessing the free data bundles, which made it harder for them to continue their module. Undergraduate students were also affected. Moreover, there were complaints from international students on the way they were evacuated impromptu from school residences despite being provided with emergency temporary accommodation. Even before COVID-19, the students found the attitude and the type of services offered by the UKZN’s international office lacking. However, during the pandemic, UKZN launched the UKZN Hardship Fund to support students from vulnerable and poor families. Yet, the extent to which international students benefited from this is unknown. Feeling the pressure of income loss, the difficulty to feed oneself and the inability to continue paying rent, some of the students resorted to crowdfunding. They also reached out to their home country consulate, the Nigeria Consulate in South Africa, and to international student unions such as the National Association of Nigerian Students in South Africa (Nanssa) as well as the Nigeria Students University of KwaZulu-Natal (ANSU).
ANSU is the umbrella body of all Nigerian students in UKZN five campuses (Howard, Westville, Edgewood, PMB and Medical School). ANSU addresses the well-being of Nigerian students and fosters unity amongst the Nigerian students at UKZN. ANSU works in partnership with Nanssa. These associations played a crucial role in helping students with the distribution of food parcels and other relief packages to ensure their well-being. Through Nanssa, international students also reached out to the Nigeria Consulate in South Africa to be evacuated back home when the challenges became insurmountable. This is evident as about 250 Nigerian students across South Africa’s higher institutions and 160 students in UKZN’s five campuses indicated the need to be evacuated. As a postgraduate student said,
‘There was no sufficient support from Nigeria government, rather they were asked to pay for evacuation. Unlike other countries like South Africa and the USA that evacuated their stranded students’.
Another student echoed,
‘I coped during the lockdown but my research was halted because as a science student I have to be in a lab which I could not be.’
‘It is difficult during lockdown; I could not register and cope… I had to resort to crowdfunding to raise money… The National Association of Nigerian Students in South Africa assisted with food parcels and food vouchers.’
Hence such students were stranded because of their inability to raise NGN 400,000 (USD 1,034). The high cost and the bad negotiation by Nanssa led many Nigerian students to decide to stay back in South Africa. The above indicates that there is a limit to how much the host countries and universities can assist international students.
Oyewo-Umoh Adetola Elizabeth is a research consultant, student mentor and freelance journalist. She is a PhD candidate at the University at KwaZulu-Natal. She works within the intersection of experiences of international students in host countries/universities, migration and people of interest.