On 30 March the residents of Studios@Burnett, tired of the inaction of management of the Feenstra group (the company that owns Studios@Burnett) in addressing issues related to their living conditions, issued a memorandum with a list of grievances.
“It’s easy for management to come around and say – ‘we are sorry about the leases’ – and it ends there. It just can’t end here!”
They gave management 24-hours to respond to their demands. At the time of writing, management of the Feenstra group has yet to directly respond to the grievances of their tenants. The reality of being a resident of Studios@Burnett often means that students live in circumstances that are not conducive to their obligations and aspirations as a student.
In issuing their memorandum, the residents listed several grievances that include, but are not limited to the following: electricity, Wi-Fi, food parcels, the presence of management, fumigation, and lease agreements. When asked how long the issues have plagued the residents of Studios@Burnett, resident Lizwi Miya stated that “at Studios@Burnett there have always been issues”. Miya continued, “Management has been trying to seem as if they are fixing issues but they are not doing anything!” Thus, students in their frustration had no other choice but to approach management directly on the matter. With regard to this, Miya said: “[…] it looks like they are out of ideas, so we must give them real solutions. In our memorandum we have told them – ‘here are the problems we are facing, and here is the solution’”. An issue that stood out was that of the company Protea Metering, whose focus is primarily “optimal supply billing”. The residents of Studios@Burnett have expressed their distaste for this service provider. When asked about his thoughts, Miya commented, “It is not working for us! They are rated 1.7 out of 5 stars on Google. We don’t want it! When the bidding process opens, Protea Metering must not be invited; they are proving to be useless”. Much of the residential body’s grievances with the company rest on what they allege to be inaccurate readings by the metering company, which result in over-charging the residents directly.
Another grievance that students raised to PDBY was the issue of Wi-Fi, on which Miya said, “The Wi-Fi is not effective. We had an issue this morning where a student had to use a hotspot to write a semester test because the Wi-Fi was not working. When there are issues with Wi-Fi, and we are unable to submit a clickUP test or whatever the case may be, Studios@Burnett must communicate with UP, citing their incompetent Wi-Fi as the reason why so-and-so was unable to write this test or submit an assignment”.
The most serious issue is the matter of leases. In their memorandum, the residents allege that there are leases that were yet to be processed by management, and the consequences for this are quite severe on the part of the students. Miya remarked, “It’s easy for management to come around and say – ‘we are sorry about the leases’ – and it ends there. It just can’t end here.” A consequence of this failure by management to process leases is that students who are NSFAS beneficiaries cannot access their funds. Consequently, vulnerable students do not have access to their means to live. In light of this harrowing reality, Feenstra group’s management offered two solutions to this issue: the first being an advance of R200 per month for the affected students to buy their essentials. The residents were not pleased with this solution, with Miya saying, “We rejected that offer with the contempt it deserves. They are already putting us into so much debt [with other expenses currently paid to Feenstra]”. The second solution was to offer students a food parcel as a form of relief. On this an agreement was reached. However, the relief in the food parcel amounted to three packets of two-minute noodles, a can of fish, a two- litre coke, a Drink-o’pop, and a packet of soup. This was expected to last the students a month. To this, Miya responded, “It is dehumanising to give students that. Is that supposed to last students a month?”
In this saga, three actors sit at the table of accountability to the students. These structures are the SRC, the residence house committees, and Feenstra’s management.
In their memorandum, the students listed the presence of management as a part of their demands. On this Miya said, “They are not around when they are needed … When management fails they are not held accountable because they are not around”. The lack of accountability is doubled when students do not have a physical copy of their leases as prescribed by the law, and their failure to provide quality services stipulated in the lease contracts is more explicit in their contravention of the Consumer Protection Act. Miya would continue, saying: “Management is incompetent, and they are not adding any value. They are just a group of white friends protecting each other”.
When PDBY reached out to the management of the Feenstra group, they were initially willing to respond to the allegations made by the residents. However, after receiving the questions from PDBY, Anelda Marais responded on behalf of the Feenstra group with the statement: “We confirm that we have no comments at this stage and herewith record that our rights are reserved in this matter. Should you have any further questions in this regard the same can be addressed to our attorney”. PDBY then asked Marias for their attorney’s details and at the time of writing, no details to that effect have been furnished. The House Committee of Studios@Burnett occupies an awkward position in their ability to represent their constituents in the residents. Koketso Matabane, Chairperson of Studios@Burnett’s house committee, recounted his attempts at reaching Feenstra’s management: “I’ve gone to great lengths to solve all of these issues, and what they have solved they see as doing us a favour”. A limiting factor in the Studios@Burnett House Committee’s ability to represent their residents lies in their recognition (or lack thereof) in the residence sub-council in terms of Section 38 of the Constitution for Student Governance as a recognised private accommodation. Matabane has reached out to the SRC on this matter on numerous occasions in the past, stating, “Even those blazer squads are not doing anything. Who are they representing when we are not recognised?” Miya would add, “TuksRes accredits these accommodations and we should be able to relay our issues first hand [by being on the sub-council]”.
In response to these allegations, SRC Secretary, Tarik Lalla commented: “We have championed the issue of representation and a lot of the issues faced by the students. We are in talks with the head of TuksRes, Lanche van Tonder, and he has notified us that the matter would be resolved soon and unrecognised accommodations would be recognised in the sub-council”.
The conditions faced by residents who live in the buildings owned by Feenstra groups are an ongoing issue. Miya stated, “What we are facing is not exclusive to Studios@Burnett; Festival’s Edge and Varsity Studios are also facing the same issues … This thing where they are pushing for profit at all costs must stop”. The Feenstra group and the allegations surrounding them are a case study in the consequences of the commodification of housing to vulnerable groups like students. Amidst all these matters residents are required to (and do) pay their rent as well as all the communal charges supplementary to that.