When will campus violence fall?
Students have resorted to violence in their ongoing protests over fees and other matters related to higher education. The Journalist reflects on what took place at three campuses this past week.
Rubber bullets, vandalism to property and looting largely took place on three campuses last week – the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the University of Johannesburg
Student activists at UWC blamed the events on a letter from the UWC Chairperson of Council, Mthunzi Mdwaba which they interpreted as a request to the authorities not to recognise engagements with the FeesWillFall Movement.
FeesWillFall representative, Thozama Nozuko, said that their movement had engaged in fruitful meetings with management before this email came.
“Mdwaba rubbished the progress made in those discussions. He rubbished the commitment that management had made with us and the SRC. He sent an email saying that he does not recognise all that. In media appearances, he has made arguments that only the SRC could speak to the Vice Chancellor about these concerns,” she said. “He is using bureaucracy to handle this even though there are so many students who feel that the SRC does not speak for us. He still said they are the only structure that they recognise which I feel is very unfair…I am reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King which warns of a liberal that is more devoted to order [and procedure] than to justice.”
Nozuko believes that such policies had not been put in place to accommodate shutdowns.
“Such procedures do not cover shutdowns,” she said. “I don’t understand why he insists on following procedure when business is strictly unusual. He also makes the argument that the UWC cannot make the commitment like other institutions because we run the risk of being bankrupted. But we also brought solutions. One of the suggestions was that stakeholders who conduct business here and who benefit from students’ spending money at their establishments be required to pay a certain amount. It can assist with the short fall that the university may experience. This can be used to cover registrations. It’s not like we are just screaming and damaging property. ”
Nozuko maintains that violence was not intended by the movement. “None of us wanted it to get to this point. While we were protesting during the nine days for fee increments to stop, we wanted to sit down at the table and talk,” she said.
But UWC slammed the actions of the students.
“The ferociousness of the attacks today and the disregard for the rights of others is absolutely shocking and is condemned in the strongest possible terms,” said vice-chancellor Professor Tyrone Pretorious.
“We are horrified that the protestors could act in this way. In this crisis situation we have taken all the required decisions, but the full implementation thereof depends on the Police and the legal processes that follow. The nature of these incidents clearly indicate that this cannot be a UWC-specific problem, but it is in fact an issue of national concern since there are significant implications for the future of higher education in particular, and for our society in general.”
UWC spokesperson, Luthando Tyhalibongo said that it is unfortunate that the #FeesWillFall movement resorted to violence instead of continuing engagement on their concerns.
“The University condemns these attacks and reiterates its call for protesters to desist from committing acts of violence, vandalism, intimidation and arson. The security threat to students and staff in addition to the damage of property remains a concern for the University,” he said. “UWC will continue to monitor the situation with the assistance of SAPS, and will continue to engage with stakeholders in an effort to find solutions to the current challenges.”
Tyhalibongo also provided clarity from UWC on the agreement between the institution, #FeesWillFall and SRC.
“Management still is and has always been committed to the signed agreement, despite #FeesWillFall’s reneging on the agreement,” he said.
“Among the items that UWC has committed to are: the implementation of a 0% non-increase; registration fees for indigent students were waived weeks ago; and students who are academically performing, but have outstanding fees will be allowed to register in 2016. The University is open to finding interim measures in support of the outsourced staff members, which includes a commitment to subsidise cleaning workers with R1000. This was communicated to the #FeesWillFall movement two weeks ago. The #FeesWillFall movement has demanded that the University should use its limited reserves to write-off historic debt worth more than R270 million.”
According to Tyhalibongo a process is underway to look at the feasibility of insourcing and writing-off historic debt. A Council meeting will take place soon to deliberate and decide on the demands.
UWC academics step in
Meanwhile UWC academic staff released a statement on 15 November calling for urgent mediation. “It is abundantly clear that the letter from the chairperson of the UWC council, Mthunzi Mdwaba, published on Monday 9 November, played a central role in reigniting protest action this week,” the statement said. “In so doing it helped create the conditions in which violence has reached unprecedented levels
“We therefore suggest that one of the aims of the mediation process be to work towards an apology from council to the campus community for allowing the statement to be published in the way that it was, and at such a crucial moment. This symbolic gesture could be of great importance going forward.”
Furthermore, it also included a call to include the #FeesMustFall/FeesWillFall movement.
“Recognising that the SRC is the democratically elected student body, we nonetheless believe that in this historic moment, we are called upon to open civic engagement on campus to broader participation by all relevant student interest groups. For this reason we advocate for the inclusion of representatives of the #FeesMustFall/FeesWillFall (UWC) movement, as well as the university executive, in the mediation process. Mass student meetings have demonstrated conclusively that the student movement, which emerged nationally in the last month, has substantial support at UWC.”
The entire statement can be read here.
Despite this, vandalism continued and two more buildings were set alight at UWC.
Will more varsities turn to violence?
Sociology lecturer at the University of the Free State (UFS) Kali Nena weighed in on the wave of student protest that swept across the country and the recent violence.
“When looking at the protests, one got the impression that students are frustrated with other matters beyond the high fees, but as with service delivery protests, xenophobia and others, targets other than the sitting government bore the brunt of the blame,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, South Africans vent out their anger at people and entities that do not make essential decisions or, in the case of xenophobia, are not the cause of their plight.”
Nena is of the opinion that students resorted to violence simply because of the symbolic nature of it.
“South Africa has a long history of violence, and I think we have this belief that there is nothing called peaceful protests,” he said. “However, I still think that largely, students were peaceful. Violent elements will always be present.”
UFS SRC president Lindokuhle Ntuli does not foresee violent outbreaks at the UFS. “I don’t think that there will be violent outbursts but we will continue to fight,” he said. “Not foreseeing violence does not mean that you stop fighting. We will continue to fight for complete transformation and free education. Our fight will be non-violent. I do not think that we need violence to fix what is broken. It will be peaceful to the extent that the rights of the black poor students are not unreasonably delayed and denied.”
According to Central SRC president at the CPUT, Sibusiso Thwala, the attitude of management fuelled the violence at UWC.
“When students are not heard, it creates a platform…students find themselves out of options because they have come out wanting engagement and nothing happens,” he said. “Right now we need platforms where management can come out to meet students half way to find solutions.”
Thwala made this comment before the wave of violent protests reached his own institution.
According to him this was a result of the student struggle being hijacked by various stakeholders who had different interests.
“Our demand of debt clearance has started with an amount of R 100 million already out,” he said. “The problem at hand now is the students who are damaging the very same property that they are going to need next year. There is also confusion as to why the vandalism is continuing whilst our demands are being met so our SRC is currently mediating between students and the university.”