Attempts to salvage the academic year on Cape Town campuses erupted in violence on Tuesday, with scenes of chaos dominating at UCT in particular. From the morning, reports of escalating clashes made it clear that while being unable to complete the year would be disastrous, completing it would carry a cost all its own. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
It was to be a busy day at UCT. By 09:00, the South African Police Service (SAPS) had already been deployed to fire stun grenades and a smoke grenade to disperse protesters in Baxter Road, outside the Tugwell and Baxter residences.
Shortly afterwards, the protesters regrouped and set off a fire extinguisher; they were blocked from entering two buildings on middle campus, however, and moved onto upper campus where, among other things, they broke into the main library and shut it down.
Protesters were caught on camera on Monday and Tuesday throwing sewage and garbage and using dustbins as battering rams. On Tuesday, UCT spokesman Elijah Moholola said a car carrying canisters of raw sewage was intercepted on its way to campus. There were reports of stones being thrown, but these were not confirmed independently.
But there was also cellphone footage caught by eyewitness James Combrink, who observed three security staff members from Vetus Schola dragging a female student by her braids into a room and barricading the door shut, apparently refusing to open it even to engage with university staff. Witnesses said the student, one of a number injured during clashes with security forces during the day, was handled so roughly that some of her braids were ripped out. Throughout the day, her comrades were calling for her release from custody. By evening, it was not clear what her condition was.
Other students were reportedly pepper-sprayed, and according to students, eight of their number were arrested during the day, with four later released.
On social media, @FeesMustFallWC described UCT campus as “a military base” and called for the local taxi industry to embark on a drive-slow picket to show solidarity with the Cape Town leg of the movement. “Free decolonial education or death”, they said.
On campus, students were observed vacating and taking refuge where they could; whether this was from protest action or security staff was unclear.
On Monday, acting national police commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane said nearly 600 people had been arrested in 265 cases relating to #FeesMustFall. Throughout Tuesday, there were further reports of arrests from multiple campuses.
Despite the escalating chaos at UCT, Vice-Chancellor Max Price said management remained committed to negotiating while attempting to complete the academic year.
“The situation has been particularly difficult on UCT campuses today, with reports of violence, harassment and intimidation,” he said. “The executive condemns the continuing violence on campus, and would like to thank those students and staff members who are doing everything they can to support the completion of the academic project for 2016.”
Negotiations, it appears, are something of a tightrope walk, with university management determined to carry out disciplinary action and students determined to have all charges dropped with immediate effect.
Most recently, assault charges have been laid for the alleged punching of Price on October 14 (with a counteraccusation coming from protester Lindsay Maasdorp, who says Price punched him); the latter not helping to build faith between stakeholders. Meanwhile, Masixole Mlandu is facing charges for alleged intimidation of Campus Protection Services (CPS) staff. But Price said the university would not oppose Mlandlu’s bail application, as he is a key mediator in the negotiations.
UCT still wishes to continue with its strategy of blended learning. But it’s likely that this will give rise to tension in itself. Criticism has already come from student quarters, saying that offering online classes is exclusionary, when not all students – particularly particularly poor students – can access the internet. Others have complained that it’s pointless offering any campus services when the Jammie Shuttles cannot run. A number of students have vowed to boycott the new learning model.
Other universities in the area have been forced to close doors, and the question arises as to whether UCT is approaching the same same fate. CPUT has announced its intention to suspend all activities across all campuses until at least Friday October 21, and it’s not yet clear whether it will be able to reopen next week.
UWC, meanwhile, has announced that negotiations are progressing, but that it will remain closed for the foreseeable future.
“A range of dialogues” have occurred this week, the university said, but it is still too early to collate the content into a cohesive whole. Wednesday promises to be a telling day, as the mass meeting agreed upon last week is scheduled to take place. Student leaders, meanwhile, gave the Executive 48 hours to provide feedback on their demands made thus far; they also made it clear to fellow students that all stakeholders were expected at the mass meeting.
For now, UCT is hanging in there, but it is teetering on a knife edge. Violence is escalating, and it’s unclear how long its doors can remain open, virtually or otherwise. Management has explained that security forces are a necessary evil to keep the university running while protests continue, but brutality – left unchecked – will damage the negotiation process. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the protests will de-escalate any time soon. The proverbial rock and hard place are shifting ever closer together, and our campuses – open and closed – are running out of time. DM
Photo: A protester hurls a dustbin at a private security guard. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks / GroundUp