South Africa

South Africa

GroundUp: Dispute over who represents students at UWC

GroundUp: Dispute over who represents students at UWC

A student at the University of Western Cape, Bathandwa Nkila, justified acts of vandalism, saying that they had "no other choice" as the management was not listening to them. He said that the movement was not political, and those who said the EFF was leading it were wrong. By Ashleigh Furlong and GROUNDUP staff.

On Monday, a group of about 300 protesters at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) continued their call for free education, an end to outsourcing, scrapping registration fees, clearing student debt, and the incorporation into the institution of Kovacs private residence on the UWC campus. This was amidst a continuing debate as to who represents the students, and with whom management should be negotiating.

Throughout the day, private security from what appeared to be a variety of companies – with men kitted out in body armour and carrying large guns – were on campus. One security guard told said that the guns fired paintballs, as they were not authorised to use rubber bullets. Security dogs and medics were also on campus. Access to the campus was strict, with only people carrying student or staff cards allowed entry. Students and workers assembled outside the Main Hall, where the university and administration staff and Rector Tyrone Pretorius were meeting to discuss the protests. After the meeting protesters were told that there would be a student assembly the next day, where everyone would have the opportunity to interact with the rector.

Last Friday, the university secured an interdict against protesters who were disrupting campus and this interdict is still in place. The interdict came into force as acts of vandalism occurred around campus. There have also been allegations of intimidation of students who did not want to partake in the protests. This was denied by one of the leaders of the #UWCFeesMustFall movement, who told the crowd today that they had only used “intellectual force”.

Bathandwa Nkila, a student who was part of the protests over the weekend, said that the protesters wanted the Rector to address the students. He said that the Student Representative Council was not representative of the students.

“They are puppets of the management; their sole purpose is to please management,” he said.

He justified the acts of vandalism by saying that the students had “no other choice” as the management was not listening to them. Nkila said that the movement was not political, and those who said the EFF was leading it were wrong. This was reiterated to GroundUp by two other students involved in the protests.

Another student, Jonathan Pritchard, said that he didn’t support violence, and was not involved in the protests over the weekend. He said that there had been a breakdown in communication between students and the SRC. “They [the SRC] haven’t publicly updated students, and they are not loyal to students,” he said.

The SRC has however given detailed feedback on student demands in a Facebook post last night addressing 22 points, including financial exclusion, food security of students, outsourcing and Kovacs.

On 23 October, Rector Pretorius sent an email to staff and students explaining the situation on campus. He wrote of arrangements to meet the SRC “first and then with the leaders of the protesting group.” He continued, “It is our information that soon after this arrangement was communicated, a group of students marched from the Student Centre to the residences, indicating that they were going to mobilise support. At the residences the security refused them entry, which led to students using ‘bricks, belts, sticks and sjamboks’ against the security. Several of our security were injured and one so badly that he required hospitalisation.”

He said, “The students then proceeded in the direction of the Student Centre, and basically thrashed and vandalised the Administration building … the Campus Protection offices and the School of Government building. Other reports are of widespread damage all over the campus. Since we are basically trapped in the Administration building by a small militant group of students with bricks and other weapons, we are not yet clear on the exact extent of the damage. As I, members of the executive and professional staff as well as the SRC, were trapped in the building, I experienced first-hand the trauma that our residence students have been going through for the last number of days. Consequently, I regret to inform you that I had no other choice, but to apply for an urgent Court Order as well as to bring the South African Police Services onto campus. Unfortunately the Police did not respond immediately, because of the past action taken against Police when they acted on campuses without the protection of a Court Order.”

“The sentiment that the protesting group only ‘wanted to be heard’ was proven untrue this afternoon,” he wrote.

On Saturday 31 October the rector sent a further letter stating, “[G]iven the events of the past few days where violence, intimidation and destruction of property were used to underscore their demands, it would be unthinkable that we could be forced into acceding to their demand to be heard. To do this would be to betray everything that we claim to stand for as an institution of higher education.”

A leader of the #UWCFeesMustFall movement who wanted to remain anonymous disputed Pretorius’s statement by saying that the bigger picture to the vandalism and violence on campus on Friday was that the Rector “plainly refused to meet with our people”.

“In no way do we [the leadership] condone it [the vandalism],” he said. He said that the leadership of #UWCFeesMustFall was not involved in the vandalism and had been trying to contain it.

“The emails [from the Rector] were inciteful and encouraged that response,” he said. He said that some students felt that they had no other way, but added that the protests had gone back to being peaceful. He said that an SRC statement of yesterday addressed some of the protesters’ demands but that it did not address the need to clear student debt. He also said that the SRC had sidelined the issue of the rising price of Kovacs.

Disputing the idea that the protesters believed the SRC to be illegitimate, he said that the protesters were against the manner in which the SRC had handled the protests. He said the SRC was simply acting as a “mouthpiece of the university management”. He added that the high level of security on campus “resembles an apartheid state”.

Today, the call for an end to outsourcing was also made a priority. Cleaners at UWC claimed they earned R2,700 a month. A student leader said that the students stood with the workers as “the exploitation of our parents affects us”. He said that the low salaries of outsourced workers at UWC meant that they could not even pay the registration fees.

A lecturer, who is also a student at UWC, and did not want to be named, told GroundUp that it seems that the senior management does not want to undermine the legitimacy of the SRC by meeting with the protesters. She disagreed with this stance, and said that management should engage with all stakeholders. She said they could have done this via informal meetings in order to hear all concerns.

Responding to the vandalism that occurred, she said that in any kind of social movement there will often be people who damage property. “It is inevitable in a highly emotive (environment). I’m not surprised but it is sad,” she said. She also said that the staff have varying attitudes to the protests, but that there has been poor management from the top down with heads of department often refusing to be part of discussions with protesters. One of the major targets of the vandalism on Friday was the Administration Building where most of the windows on the ground floor were smashed, couches were overturned and a television lay face down on the floor.

Luthando Tyhalibongo, UWC Media Relations Manager, said that most of the vandalism occurred on Friday but that there were isolated cases of arson over the weekend. Tyhalibongo also said that there was looting of some of the shops in the Student Centre during the vandalism. He said that the university had deployed psychologists to assist students who were affected by the protests or by alleged intimidation during the protests. He said that exams were set to begin on 9 November, and that the week ahead was to be for exam preparation. DM

Photo: University of Western Cape called in private security to protect campus after acts of vandalism and arson. Access was strictly controlled. Photo by Masixole Feni for GroundUp.


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