[intro]Tension continued to grip the University of Free State this week with the student community caught up in disagreements about protests for free and quality education.[/intro]

It’s Monday night, 26 September and to all intents and purposes classes were to resume the following day (Tuesday). The University authorities are sticking to their decision that the shutdown would end immediately while students under the leadership of the newly formed Free Education Movement (FEM) insist that campus will remain shut until the government announces a commitment to free and quality education for the poor.

“We have to keep the pressure on,” said Asive Dlanjwa, a 2nd year B Com Economics student, one of the seven UFS students elected last week to lead FEM.

It was a week of high drama last week. Protests started on Monday but then were halted when threats of violence surfaced amongst protesters. The SRC insisted that they were committed to campaign for free and quality education only under conditions of non-violence. On Tuesday, some students challenged SRC president, Lindokuhle Ntuli and took the microphone from his hand, preventing him from speaking. This led to a disintegration of the meeting and an SRC decision to stop participation in the protests. “We felt that the call for free education could not include harming our fellow students,” said Ntuli. “We called off the protest because of these uncertainties.”

By then the university had already announced that it would remain closed for the week. It used the time to meet with the SRC, other leaders of the academy and unions to outline the practical implications of the Higher Education Minister’s recent fees announcement.

For two days, the university administration presented detail of how the fees will be implemented for 2017 and opened its budget to both staff and students.

“One of the best pro-poor fees structures”

Acting vice-rector, Professor Nicky Morgan said that it was necessary for the university community to know how the broad announcement would translate at the micro level at this particular university. “We engaged the SRC and all other relevant student bodies in the discussions.”

He explained that the UFS already has one of the best pro-poor fees structures in the country. “Our fees are between 18 percent (for medical studies) and 37 percent (for the humanities) cheaper than most other universities,” he said.

The UFS also supported the right of students to protest peacefully but did not in any way condone violent or destructive behaviour. “Unless there is space for peaceful contestation, there will never be any change in higher education funding,” he said.

After the discussions he was hopeful that the university would return to normality this week.

But this was clearly not meant to be. By Thursday last week, the FEM approached the primes (leaders of residences) to explain why they felt it was important for students to join in. The primes in turn spoke to the SRC indicating that they needed the SRC’s participation for them to feel free to join in. This led to a meeting between the SRC, the primes and the FEM. The meeting was tense at first but then slowly the different groups found one another. They set aside their differences and agreed that they were all in favour of free and quality education.

They agreed to participate in a march to the provincial government the next day.

“The dynamics are changing”

The SRC member responsible for the Prime Council, Ingrid Wentzel, said that about 20 to 24 primes participated frequently in discussions and all 27 participated in the march. “In the past, the marches were predominantly black,” she said. “On Friday a fair amount of white students joined in,” she said.

Police escorted the marchers along the 5km walk to the provincial government offices. Students from Motheo and the Central University of Technology, as well as parents joined the march. “I thought it was very well led,” said Wentzel who is a postgraduate Human Movement Science student.

SRC president Lindokuhle Ntuli said that dynamics were changing on campus this year. Last year, white students protested about Afrikaans and black students about fees, he said. Last year it was largely those from the SRC and political associations that was involved. “This year we have seen a lot of faces we did not see last year and now more faces that we did not see at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I think there is a growing consciousness taking place amongst students.”

He said that the SRC was aware that the academic project has to continue and that would not be possible if the university is shut down indefinitely.

Success vs access

“This would be unreasonable,” he said. “Our focus must be on access and on success of students. It must be a give and take situation,” he said.

He said that continuing the protest did not only mean closing universities. They were planning a march to the local Chamber of Commerce in Bloemfontein and this did not require a shut down. “We need the private sector to lend a hand in securing free and quality education.”

But his comments were made after the march at the weekend. By Monday 26 September, 2016, there was another twist. FEM approached the university calling for it to shut down until the minister announced a commitment to free and quality education for the poor. By Tuesday some students were seen crying while others were cheering as the university was forced into a stalemate. The ball was now in the court of the government.

At the time of going to print, UFS was officially shut for classes until 7 October, 2016. This included the period of the mid-term week-long break due in October, 2016.

For updates follow @TheJournalistSA

Images courtesy of Leeroy Seeletse