South Africa

South Africa

#WitsFeesMustFall: Students take to the streets

#WitsFeesMustFall: Students take to the streets

An Aristotle quote is scribbled on a University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) office door: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Students would add that you can achieve neither without money. On Monday, Wits students continued their protest against a fee hike, with demonstrations spreading as students confront a system they say is unequal and unfair. By GREG NICOLSON.

Former Wits Progressive Youth Alliance leader Mcebo Dlamini and leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters on campus Vuyani Pambo pointed at the security guards on the other side of the Great Hall’s locked door. After marching around Braamfontein, thousands of students demanded admittance. A window was smashed and the students streamed inside, moving towards the Senate House concourse.

The forced entrance was, according to the university, the reason why its council did not address students as agreed. Wits has been closed for days due to student protests against fee increases and on Monday students demonstrated for hours in the concourse before marching through Braamfontein and closing busy intersections. The University of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes University were also closed on Monday as the protests spread.

The Wits protests on Monday took to the streets in Braamfontein, closing down the roads. (Greg Nicolson)

Neither Dlamini nor Pambo lead the Student Representative Council (SRC) but they were the most vocal leaders on Monday. “We are going to shut down this university until …” Dlamini paused for the audience’s roar. Students occupied the concourse and many watched from the above walkways. “Wits University will remain closed until our grievances are heard,” he continued.

Dlamini said the students agree on one issue: no fee increases. The protests were sparked by a proposed 10.5% hike in fees and the students are demanding no increases for next year. “The reason why Wits is having a shutdown is because of exorbitant fees and ridiculous upfront fee payments. We are saying we can’t afford [it],” he said. Referring to the apparent turnaround from Wits after an agreement was reached over the weekend during marathon demonstrations, Dlamini said students had been trying to “massage and romance the situation” but “we were massaging and romancing a donkey”. “While we were busy massaging and romancing it, it kicks you back.”

Photo: EFF Wits leader Vuyani Pambo argues with a security representative demanding protesters be let inside the Wits building. Soon after, the window was smashed and students entered the building. (Greg Nicolson)

Before students marched through the streets, Pambo said there was no division between the different political groups represented. “Comrades, do not fear. We have no fear in our hearts. We have no fear in our hearts. We have no doubt in our minds. We already we know what we are engaged in is a historic moment. We are busy with an epoch. We are changing this country. This country has been sleeping. We are here. The beautiful ones are born. The beautiful ones are here. You are the ones who are going to lead this country,” said the EFF student leader.

Wits students look over Senate House's concourse where demonstrators on Monday waited to be addressed by the university's council, who didn't come because they forcefully occupied the building. (Greg Nicolson)

A statement from Wits said the university’s council wanted to address demonstrators outside the building, which students were clearly unhappy about, and would not engage with them after they stormed Senate House. It said the building would be cleared and secured.

Some of the women students protesting against the fee increases sing in the Senate House concourse. (Greg Nicolson)

The statement said the university’s management had heard the students’ demands and agreed that above-inflation fee increases constitute a difficult burden for students. The Wits council proposed a number of options to reduce student costs. They include austerity measures, discounts for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students and those who are financially stressed, waiving the upfront fee for NSFAS students (which Wits said was already policy) and other qualifying students, directing vice-chancellor Adam Habib’s performance bonus to help ease the student burden, and engaging with the government.

The EFF's Vuyani Pambo and Progressive Youth Alliance's Mcebo Dlamini lead the march. The two were the most vocal leaders on Monday. (Greg Nicolson)

The issues, however, have not been resolved. “In keeping with both parties’ commitment to negotiations, council agrees that these options must be considered through a deliberative process and concrete negotiations, in line with the university’s governance procedures. Council has established a team and is requesting the student community and the Wits SRC to establish a similar team to partner with council on resolving this issue as anticipated in the agreement,” said the university’s statement.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said on Monday that he would meet with vice-chancellors, university council chairpersons, students and workers on Tuesday to discuss the issues and find a common framework for fee increases. “An approach must be developed in order to come up with a dispensation that takes into account the difficult circumstances facing especially the students who come from poor families, as well as the financial pressures facing the system,” said Nzimande. He called on students to demonstrate with restraint and for university managements to act in good faith while both try to negotiate a solution.

Wits students sing as they occupy the intersection between Empire Road and the M1 off-ramp, halting traffic in the busy intersection for 90 minutes. (Greg Nicolson)

Since the Rhodes Must Fall movement galvanised students across the country earlier this year, students at different campuses have regularly demonstrated at different universities and on Monday the Wits protests spread to UCT and Rhodes. UCT managed to get a court order against the demonstrations but both universities were closed for the day.

The Wits students are determined to continue their demonstrations and the South African National Students Congress (Sasco) on Monday called for strikes at universities across the country on Wednesday. Sasco said the strike is in line with its demand for free education. It wants a moratorium on fee increases and the state to fund universities’ shortfalls to avoid “the risk of blackmailing many of us and our parents into abject poverty and destitution”.

Titus Shiburi watches the Wits protesters as his bus has been held up by the protest on the roads for over an hour. (Greg Nicolson)

Despite reports that Monday’s demonstration at Wits was violent, student leaders stressed discipline. While marching on the Jan Smuts Avenue and closing down the busy intersection between Empire Road and the M1 off-ramp, students attacked a vehicle, overturning it. But that was only after the driver passed police closing the road and sped through the group of students sitting on the ground, almost injuring a number of them. Students occupied the road for 90 minutes, letting no traffic pass, but when police told them they had five minutes to clear out, they left.

You’ve got things to do tomorrow,” a member of the university’s ‘protest monitoring group’ said in a teacher’s tone. DM

Main photo: Wits students occupied the university’s Senate House concourse on Monday after forcing their way inside. (Greg Nicolson)

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