South Africa

South Africa

Student protests: UCT flexes its muscles

Student protests: UCT flexes its muscles

When University of Cape Town (UCT) student protesters barricaded entrances to the campus on Monday morning, university management responded by suspending all teaching and telling staff and students to go home. But while high-ranking UCT officials appeared to spend most of the rest of the day in discussion with students, the real action was taking place at the Western Cape High Court, where a judge was issuing a court order against the students. By REBECCA DAVIS.

“It’s nice to see white people walking for the first time in their lives,” commented one protester, witnessing a stream of students leaving the UCT campus on foot after administrators cancelled teaching for the day. The foot traffic outside UCT was busier than normal because protesters had blocked motorists’ entrance to the campus by placing rocks and benches across the road.

The barricade had started a few hours earlier. Student protesters, rallying under the hashtag #UCTshutdown, distributed flyers to explain the purpose of their action.

“The management of UCT has repeatedly used a pretend concern for the fees of black working-class students to justify its refusal to end outsourcing and its refusal to pay its workers a living wage,” the flyer read. “Yet at the same time, even the poorest UCT student must make upfront payments to attend this university.”

Concern over the low wages paid to outsourced workers has been one of the issues taken up by the #RhodesMustFall movement over the last months. It has now become one of the twin pillars of the #UCTshutdown campaign – together with the matter of UCT’s fee increases. Like the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, UCT has announced a fee increase of over 10% (10.3%). Students say all fee increases must be suspended.

By late Monday morning, with most students and staff having left or not come in at all, the campus had a deserted feel. Exams are on the horizon, and some lecturers and students expressed frustration about the suspension of teaching. A man identified as an associate professor in the commerce department was captured on camera referring to the protesting students as “selfish cunts”. UCT has stated that it is investigating the incident.

A group of around 100 students, singing and dancing behind a banner painted with the slogan #FeesMustFall, made their way around the unusually empty campus in an initially fairly aimless fashion. There was a brief occupancy of the humanities building foyer, before the group moved on. A number of protest placards targeted UCT vice-chancellor Max Price, who is away at the moment. “Price Prepare For Slave Rebellion”, read one. “Outsourcing is UCT’s living slave memorial,” read another.

Other protesters chose to target the African National Congress (ANC). “Blunt Blade not sharp enough,” declared one placard: a reference to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who would address the media later that day but say very little of substance.

A report came through from comrades at the barricades: a white motorist forcing his way through had run over a student’s leg. The news was met with outrage, and some students took off running.

Masixole Mlandu, a third-year political science student, took the loudhailer to urge restraint.

“In a revolution we are forced to maintain high discipline,” he told the group.”We must try not to escalate things. It diverts from what we are saying.” When tainted with violence, Mlandu warned, “our message is no longer listened to”.

The students made their way to the other side of campus in a calmer fashion. A fierce sun wheeled higher in the sky.

“Today’s action is to clearly demonstrate to the university that sometimes we allow injustice to prevail,” Mlandu told the Daily Maverick as he walked. “It’s a political act in itself, in a country where the minority can just afford to watch black students be excluded for financial reasons.”

He explained that their demands included the calling of an emergency council meeting in order to halt the proposed fee increase – and to discuss the payment of fees in principle. “We want no fees at all,” Mlandu said.

Mlandu said the protesters had invited university management to meet with them inside the Bremner building, UCT administration’s headquarters, earlier that morning. But management, fearing that the students would occupy the building – as happened during the #RhodesMustFall protests a few months ago – told them they would only have the meeting outside, in the parking lot adjoining the building.

“Like a bunch of baboons who must have a meeting under a tree!” Mlandu said bitterly.

He said the students were expecting Nzimande to Skype them outside the Bremner building at 1pm, but “you never know with Blade”. His scepticism proved well-founded: such a call never happened.

Students gathered in front of a fire and rescue truck blocking the way to the highway, before making their way towards the Bremner building. When the group passed students walking in the opposite direction, who were clearly not joining the protest, there were some heckles.

“You know they want to increase the school fees? 10.3%? You got it?” one protester shouted.

“We can’t be convincing blacks,” her friend sighed.

“My parents must see that I’m fighting for their money,” a young man said earnestly.

Outside Bremner, they were met by at least another 100 students, and the total numbers swelled to around 300 at their peak. Students rattled the locked doors of the building. Initially, management was nowhere to be seen. But soon a circle formed around four men: acting vice-chancellor Francis Petersen, alumni and development director Russell Ally, deputy vice-chancellor Danie Visser, and surgery head Anwar Mall.

Student representative Busi Mkhumbuzi addressed the members of UCT management and the students at the same time.

“We asked students to mobilise in solidarity with worker struggles,” she began. “We recognised that this institution has a history of being exclusionary to those who are structurally disadvantaged, aka black people.”

She explained that the UCT protesters were drawn from groups including Rhodes Must Fall, Patriarchy Must Fall, the UCT Left Students Movement and Equal Education’s UCT chapter. Management, she said, “failed to treat us with respect” by asking for a meeting in the Bremner parking lot. (There were cries of outrage at this.)

Mkhumbuzi read a list of demands: that lectures be cancelled for all students on Tuesday so they could attend a mass meeting; that UCT’s outsourced workers be given the day off with full pay for the same purpose; that an emergency council meeting be called to do away with the fee increases; and that a meeting be held with government ministers to discuss the issue of free fees.

Petersen took the loudhailer, to calls of “Francis must fall!” His words failed to stem the discontent of the students. On the matter of fees, he said: “The only response I can give at this point in time is that only council makes a decision, so we will take it as management to council.” On the matter of giving workers the day off to protest, Petersen said: “I can’t make that decision here.”

“We are not going anywhere,” warned Pam Dhlamini. “If needs be, you’re going to sleep here with us.”

The four men sat in the parking lot amid the students, while speeches were made and songs were sung. After some time in the heat, Visser indicated his desire to leave, as he had recently had heart surgery. A quarrel broke out among organisers about how best to deal with this. “He has had heart operations! If something happens to him it’s not good for us,” one protested. “Black people are dying,” came the retort. Visser was eventually permitted to leave, though he returned voluntarily later.

Were the three men remaining being held hostage? They claimed not. “I am here because I want to be,” Ally told a worker, who didn’t look convinced. Nearby, a student organiser was explaining: “The whole point of a hostage situation is that you keep them here.”

What the students wanted was for Petersen to get UCT council chairperson Njongonkulu Ndungane on the phone to arrange an emergency sitting of the council that evening. Petersen intermittently made phonecalls and mopped his face, but nothing seemed to come of it. Management explained to students that they were concerned about the exam timetable: due to the shutdown, some exams on Monday morning had allegedly already been cancelled. Students dismissed this as baseless prevarication.

A UCT worker, who declined to be named by the Daily Maverick because she was “very tired”, expressed her gratitude towards the students at taking up the fight for their wages. “They know we are working for very little money,” she said. Earlier, Masixole Mlandu had observed: “We like to speak about financial exclusion while forgetting our mothers work here for peanuts.”

A group of students eventually broke through into the Bremner building, declaring it occupied once more. With darkness threatening to fall, UCT management pulled out their trump card: a court order, signed by a Western Cape High Court judge on Monday morning, declaring that anyone “disrupting or otherwise interfering in any way with the normal activities of the university” would be in violation of the interdict.

“In the event of a failure by the respondents to comply with the above interdict”, it said, “the sheriff of this court, assisted insofar as may be necessary by the South African Police Services, shall be authorised and directed to ensure compliance with the interdict.”

If new barricades were erected on Tuesday – as students have threatened – then they would be removed, the interdict stated.

At the time of writing, riot police were waiting outside the Bremner building, while students refused to evacuate. Perhaps they were heartened from the news coming from other South African universities: that Rhodes has agreed to amend its fee structures in the face of protest; that Fort Hare will permit students with outstanding fees to write exams after all. With these examples before them, the UCT students surely have everything to hold on for. DM

Photo: Members of UCT management listen to student demands on campus on Monday, 19 October 2015. (Photo: Rebecca Davis)


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