South Africa

South Africa

#FeesMustFall Thursday: Promises vs. Petrol Bombs

#FeesMustFall Thursday: Promises vs. Petrol Bombs

While some students were undoubtedly experiencing protest fatigue, others remained committed to advancing their cause peacefully. Yet some of the active protests took on a darker hue on Thursday. As a peaceful protest made its way to Parliament in Cape Town and Wits' embattled Student Representative Council tried to make amends with the student body, a tense statement from North-West University spoke of a large number of petrol bombs uncovered on campus. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

While a large group of protesters was preparing to hand over a memorandum to Parliament, management at North-West University was preparing a statement regarding a large number of petrol and several petrol bombs discovered on campus.

Vice-chancellor Dan Kgwadi said the university, which had been described by management as “under siege” on Wednesday, had only just been evacuated and the bombs had been discovered just in time. “If the university did not react on time, it was possible that the university would have been burned down,” he said.

The bomb threat had prompted intervention from the provincial government, with North West premier Supra Mahumapelo expressing concern that the university might be the site of “another Marikana” if appropriate measures weren’t taken.

According to the university, it was still too risky for students and staff to return to campus until negotiations had made considerably more progress. “Considerable damage [has] been done to facilities on campus,” it said.

The situation was not significantly better at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), where protests turned violent on several campuses around Pretoria. Management expressed empathy with students and committed to ongoing negotiations. “Dr Bandile Masuku, chairperson of the Tshwane University of Technology; council, Professor Lourens van Staden, vice-chancellor and principal; as well as the TUT community are unwavering in their empathy and support of the plight of our students who face extreme difficulties to pay for higher education,” management said in a statement.

Van Staden, however, warned students that ongoing violent protests would turn the tide of public sympathy against them. “As a people’s university we are sensitive to the needs of students, with many of our students hailing from disadvantaged communities and dependent on NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) funding, bursaries and loans to finance their studies,” he said. “Furthermore, we must remember that as universities, our existence depends on our students. “This issue is about more than just student fees, it is about the transformation in higher education. But students should observe the fine line between protest action and transgressing the rule of law. Through disciplined action aimed at bringing about change, they will retain public sympathy and contribute towards change in education.”

Protests continued, however. Classes remained suspended at all three TUT campuses, and were to remain closed on Friday and Monday.

The cause of the new wave of protests was unclear, the university said, because negotiations had made significant progress, and management and student representatives had agreed that classes would resume on Thursday.

At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), meanwhile, classes resumed in the presence of police, with students expressing anxieties about upcoming exams and distress at the previous day’s violence. Students on campus were tentatively returning to business as usual in the morning, while management announced that it had applied for an urgent interdict in the Johannesburg High Court against anyone seeking to disrupt classes or daily campus activities.

Early in the morning, News24 reported that a number of undergraduate students were worried about the ongoing interruption of their studies and feared more violence. Speaking to Daily Maverick a little later, one postgraduate student wryly described the situation on campus as having been “quite hairy”. A number of other students at the university expressed anger at the violence, describing it as unnecessary. One described having been met with threats and aggression when he expressed satisfaction with management’s response to the protests; another described the situation as “sad”, although it was unclear whether this was in reference to the original conditions leading to the protests or their ultimate conclusion, or both.

That said, threats of violence did not only come from protesters. On Twitter, one student who took exception to angry protesters storming into a hall at Wits shared a photo of the protester concerned and wrote: “This arrogant butch in the black cap has obviously never been given a proper p**s klap. Why don’t u try it with people that can defend themselves? You frikkin coward. A**holes like u are EVERYTHING that is wrong in SA – your time is coming B*TCH.!” [sic] According to the Tweeter, the protester and a number of comrades had stormed the U10 statistics lecture, threatened 30-40 students and a young female lecturer, shouting, waving brooms and shutting down the power source. The original poster alleged police had not assisted them.

In between, the Student Representative Council (SRC) was trying to repair a breach with students following controversy over rumours of a R40,000 bribe and a deal with management that some of the student body felt was a sell-out and did not represent their views or wishes. “We have noted that the university has released a statement saying that a resolution has been reached together with the SRC. We must however clarify that there have been no meetings between management and the SRC at any point,” SRC leaders Shaeera Kalla and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa said in an e-mailed statement. “A PYA (Progressive Youth Alliance) meeting took place on Sunday the 25th of October 2015. We must clear up the controversy this has unfortunately caused. Both the current president Shaeera Kalla and incoming president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa were present at the meeting, and many rumours have come out of this. The SRC affirms the right of all student organisations to freely meet. Having said that, it has been made clear that the only firm decision-making platform for the #FeesMustFall movement has been mass student meetings called by the SRC.” They added that the R40,000 was a donation for food and other necessary items and was accepted in the “best interests” of the students.

They further issued a list of nine demands to the university, in response to Wits management’s nine-point proposal for action. These included a zero increase in upfront fees; a two-week postponement of exams and that students not be tested on any work not taught yet and that tests or assignments missed because of protest action should be written off; support for the visa status of international students; an end to outsourcing with a minimum wage of R6,500; cutting senior salaries by 50%; the upskilling of workers; the dropping of any charges against protesters; and the adoption of the Workers’ Charter drawn up by workers.

The picture was more peaceful in Cape Town. Despite ongoing negotiations, a delicate situation appeared to be unfolding at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where reports surfaced of a petition of no confidence in the SRC, while students continued to battle food shortages in residences affected by the protests. By Daily Maverick’s evening deadline, news came in of protesters at the V&A Waterfront, where the SRC had been stationed during the unrest. “Is the SRC still being pampered at the Waterfront?” one student had wanted to know, bitterly, earlier in the day.

In the morning a group of University of Cape Town (UCT) protesters – some students, some workers – led a peaceful march to Parliament against outsourcing and police brutality, where an initial group of around 100 swelled to around 700 or 800 people. Many wore white headbands, symbolising that they came in peace. It was a very different picture to the scene of the previous week’s march to Parliament. There was none of the chaos, none of the fear, and most comfortingly, there were none of the stun grenades. And this time, the government listened. Higher Education and Training Deputy Minister Mduduzi Manana came out to receive the memorandum, and gamely donned an #FeesMustFall T-shirt. (To be fair, it might also just be that he knew what was good for him.) Some of the protesters called for Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande; others called for President Jacob Zuma. But on the whole, it appeared the crowd was relieved to be met by a listening ear.

They have learnt now, they are listening now,” one protester said.

Others expressed, verbally, their ongoing disappointment at the police brutality they had experienced. “Why did you shoot at us?” one called.

Over on social media, some commentators were a little more cynical at the apparent change of heart. “Deputy minister thanking us for reminding govt abt free education. Woops just forgot for 20 years,” Tweeted one.

Asked about #FeesMustFall, Zuma responds in Biblical days. Like Creation, he considers 21 year wait to be ‘overnight’,” added Vote EFF 2016.

Protesters warned that if their memorandum did not receive satisfactory attention, they would be back on Monday.

A response seemed likely, however, with Manana telling protesters that the report on free higher education would be funded to be gazetted in the near future. (Read Greg Nicolson’s update here.)

He added that a meeting was being held in Pretoria to formulate a plan to find funds for keeping tertiary education fees the same in 2016 – a shortfall of R2.6-billion. (BDlive reported on Wednesday that an additional R5.8-billion was needed over the next three years.) Nzimande had been expected to announce said plan earlier in the day, but this was delayed. According to Manana, the government would be unable to fund free education by itself and required support from the corporate sector.

The mood among UCT students, however, was largely celebratory and peaceful, with the victory of having secured a promise to insource on campus still fresh.

Politicians were scrambling to support students, it appeared, with Manana calling #FeesMustFall a “noble cause” and Democratic Alliance education spokesperson Belinda Bozzoli adding that students had every reason to be upset. The Congress of the People, meanwhile, took the opportunity to say Nzimande should be fired.

A little while after the protesters dispersed, UCT vice-chancellor Max Price addressed media in Cape Town. A surprisingly chipper-looking Price did not mince words about the university’s intentions, stating in no uncertain terms that UCT did not support free education for all but that in the long term there would in all likelihood be a sliding scale system in which the very poor were supported but those who could afford to would allow increases to “be what they need to be”. “I cannot support a call for free university education,” he said. “I can support a call for free education for the poor.”

He also said he could support the idea of a graduate tax, saying there was enough research to show that having a university education increased one’s earning potential and employment potential. “There’s a good reason for government to fund higher education,” he said. “But the individual benefits significantly. There’s no reason why the individual shouldn’t be expected to give something back.” The third element of a long-term solution would be to “beef up” financial aid, he said.

A partial financial aid system does not help us.”

He added that in the short term, the university would be negotiating with the Department of Home Affairs to assist international students with their visa requirements. Where these could not be met, arrangements would be made for such students to complete their course requirements back home.

On outsourcing versus insourcing, a terse Price noted that insourcing had its pros and cons for employees. Outsourced staff received discounts on both tuition and residence fees, he said, while university staff received benefits only on tuition. These discounts would now apply in the same way to all insourced staff, which meant that newly insourced staff would no longer be eligible for residence discounts.

So what are the next steps? It’s not entirely clear. Listening to student voices, it appears that in addition to the growing dissent between those who want to focus on their studies and those who want to continue protesting, there are distinct differences in opinion over what different factions of protesters want, and who they want to lead them towards these increasingly splintered goals. Rumbles of dissatisfaction with leadership are growing louder; internal issues at various institutions are beginning to drown out the initial objectives that campuses across the country had in common. And the stakes for students who wish to graduate or need to travel far to return home at the end of the year are getting higher.

In the early stages of #FeesMustFall, supporters hailed the movement as proof of what could be achieved through unity. Let us hope for its sake that it does not now become proof of what can be broken down through disorder and disintegration. DM

Photo: Students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) protest outside the medical school, Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa 20 October 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.


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