Most universities across the country resumed normal operations on Monday following weeks of student protests. Protesters have made significant achievements beyond President Jacob Zuma's announcement that fees won't increase in 2016. Now they will look to long-term demands of transformation, and accessible education for all. By GREG NICOLSON.
When the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) announced that classes would resume last Wednesday, those who had supported the student protests were split. There were accusations that those who wanted to continue with exams had sold out, and those who continued to disrupt the university were accused of holding others’ education at ransom. A diminished group of students and staff continued the protests, and on Sunday won a major commitment from the university.
That afternoon, after engaging with outsourced workers and students for two days, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Transformation, Tawana Kupe, announced agreements that the university hopes would allow the institution to re-focus on exams. Most importantly, Wits agreed to insourcing “in principle”.
As most universities around the country resume normal activities, the commitment on outsourcing at Wits is a major milestone for students and staff. For years there have been protests against outsourcing that have not made significant gains. Sunday’s announcement is just one victory, among many, as student movements now look to their exams, and long-term struggles.
Kupe said Wits would establish a commission with representatives of workers, students, academics and management, to investigate how insourcing can be made possible, and to negotiate the contents of a workers charter. The university will, also, scrap the R1,500 fee for supplementary exams, and financially-stressed students who owe the university R15,000 or less, will not have to pay their debt in order to graduate. The children of outsourced workers who qualify to study at Wits will receive financial aid until they graduate. Wits also announced its exam timetable, which will run from next Monday until 4 December.
“After three weeks of student protest action in higher learning institutions across the country, characterised by several incidents of police violence and private security brutality on the Wits campus, these victories are testament to the movement’s principled belief that you cannot resolve the issues of poor and working class black students without resolving the issues of the marginalised black workers on campuses,” said the Wits Fees Must Fall movement in a statement. Past estimates have put the cost of insourcing Wits’ thousands of outsourced workers at between R170 and R200 million.
On Thursday, Wits was granted a High Court interdict to allow police to prevent students from disrupting and intimidating other students and staff. The Wits Fees Must Fall statement continued, “As we move forward, we are aware that there is much to do and much to fight for, and we remain committed towards finding creative and strategic ways through which we can ensure that the total emancipatory project of the black person is realised.”
At the University of Johannesburg, Vice Chancellor Ihron Rensburg last week said his institution would continue to lobby the government for free education for the poor, and accelerate staff transformation. He also said new subjects, compulsory for undergraduates, are being designed to focus on African issues and traditions, including African history, philosophy, anti-colonial struggles, and post-colonialism.
Studies continued at other universities across the country on Monday. The Tshwane University of Technology also got an interdict against protesting students last week, and talks between students and management allowed campuses to open as normal on Monday. Classes have also resumed at North West University, which last week announced plans to make its language policy more inclusive, discuss controversial symbols, such as the Totius statue, aggressively recruit black academics, and rethink how the curriculum can better reflect the continent. The University of Venda also agreed to certain student demands, and academic operations have resumed. On Monday, students at Fort Hare University’s Alice campus started exams, after disruptions last week.
In Cape Town, a group of University of Western Cape (UWC) and University of Cape Town (UCT) students on Monday returned to Parliament for a response to demands they submitted last week. They wanted a commitment to free education, a stop to outsourcing, an end to harsh police response to protesters, and the release of protesters who have been arrested and detained. After waiting for hours outside Parliament, they were met by officials from the Department of Higher Education, who did not accede their demands. The students said they would be back next week, to hear from President Jacob Zuma, and Higher Education and Training Minister, Blade Nzimande.
The University of Western Cape remained closed on Monday, after the institute got an interdict against protesters over the weekend. “We have no illusions about the fact that tomorrow is not going to be an easy day, but we cannot further postpone the opening of the campus,” said UWC Vice Chancellor, Tyrone Pretorius, on Sunday.
The University of Cape Town announced a return to full operations. In a statement, UCT Vice Chancellor, Max Price, apologised for the interdict the university sought early in the protest. “It is clear that staff and students were deeply affected by what occurred when the police subsequently enforced the interdict. The interdict and the SAPS action quickly became an additional obstacle to resolving issues. We recognised this and immediately pursued the cancellation of the interdict and the dropping of all charges,” said Price. “We regret that the situation on the ground unfolded in the way it did. It had consequences that we did not intend. For that we apologise unreservedly.” The university has also agreed, in principle, to end outsourcing.
While most universities have re-opened, after protesters achieved significant gains, student movements have been galvanised. They will, now, have to turn their attention to long-term goals of transforming tertiary institutions, and ensuring that education is financially accessible for all. DM
Photo: South African students protest on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, in Cape Town, South Africa, 22 October 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.