The fallout from the disruption of the University of Cape Town’s Senate meeting on 9 November, continued in dramatic fashion on Tuesday, as condemnation poured in from one quarter after the other, for what essentially amounted to assault on the Vice-Chancellor, Max Price. Meanwhile, at the University of the Western Cape, a heavy security presence prevailed, as students worked in a tense atmosphere. Exams are going ahead, but not in the circumstances anybody foresaw at the start of 2015. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
On Tuesday morning, an uneasy calm had settled on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Sports Centre, where students were writing exams.
“This morning things are going fine at the Sports Centre,” said Dr Andrew Hamilton of the Department of Physics. “It’s a relief to get things going. The uncertainty must be very stressful for the students. I hope they are relaxed enough to get on with it.”
At least one student admitted that studying under the present circumstances was very challenging. Another, however, was relieved that exams were finally starting, saying the uncertainty of not knowing had been the most stressful. Students who did not wish to write now, had the option to write early next year, UCT confirmed earlier this month. The university previously announced that all libraries were open, and some were operating on extended hours. The Jammie Shuttles, the university’s dedicated transport service, were operating again too.
But under the (relatively) calm exterior, anger was boiling over. After around 100 protestors disrupted the Senate Meeting on Monday, with some of them throwing water, water bottles and other objects at Price, tempers were flaring all over campus.
“In the run-up to the meeting we saw protesters setting tires alight. Some buses had their tires slashed, and fire extinguishers were stolen, and, in one case, set off in the face of the Vice-Chancellor,” said Gerda Kruger, Executive Director of the Communication and Marketing Department. “These actions are deplorable, and in yesterday’s meeting they escalated to a level of aggression that everyone feels is intolerable, and is to be condemned in the strongest terms. No engagement or negotiation is possible in such an environment. In fact, this behaviour threatens to reverse all the gains made by so many in the discussions on how to make UCT better and stronger in the future.”
Kruger’s description of events were a stark reversal of the early days of the protests, where police and private security companies were condemned for violence against protestors, which included hurling missiles. According to Kruger, “They [the protestors] entered the venue without permission, and screamed, and verbally abused members of Senate. They particularly targeted Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price with utterly unacceptable verbal abuse and threw bottles, food and other articles at him. They intimidated staff members, physically threatened people, racially abused people at random, humiliated individuals and generally acted in an unruly, aggressive manner.” Video footage shows protestors singing and dancing on desks, and a visibly agitated Price telling protestors he is not equipped to deal with disputes within the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU).
The Academics Union Executive (AUE) called for “consequences for the people involved and supports the institution of necessary disciplinary measures. Those responsible for these acts have crossed the line of acceptable protest and behaviour in a democratic society,” the AUE said in a statement.
The Black Academic Caucus (BAC) strongly condemned Monday’s events, but took a more neutral tone, urging protestors to steer clear of disruptions that would not serve the purpose of “students’, academics’, staff and workers’ causes”. The “BAC will continue to engage with students and workers’ movements, and work towards a truly inclusive and transformed UCT,” they said.
In the meantime, counselling services have been made available at the university for students that have experienced trauma during the protests. It is not specified whether this has been through fellow student intimidation, police brutality, or general anxiety. It was unclear how the abovementioned appeals for order would work, or how consequences might be applied. On Tuesday there was still uncertainty regarding where the protestors were from. According to UCT, the “majority” were not from the institution.
In a climate where sympathy was waning for the protestors’ cause, Wits scholar Leigh-Ann Naidoo called for calm, giving an address that was a keen reminder of why the #RhodesMustFall movement – the precursor to #FeesMustFall – first gained relevance. Naidoo described the sense of alienation experienced by many of UCT (and other) students; the ongoing legacy of overt and covert racism at universities, and the need to challenge the status quo. Unpacking the procedures and practices of the early structures of #RhodesMustFall, Naidoo provided a more sympathetic insight into the movement. It was necessary to recognise student politics as an essential element of the politics of struggle, she said.
#RhodesMustFall’s radical ideological approach, combined with structured public seminars, did achieve a number of things, Naidoo pointed out. It connected the classroom to university and society, it “put the last first”, and threw into higher relief “what it meant to try [to] have critical conversations about particular things in the presence of white people who were unconscious of the power and privilege that came in these conversations, and the impact that this had on others’ ability to engage.” This approach, which arguably planted the seed for the #FeesMustFall protests, was necessary and overdue, argued Naidoo.
The ongoing tension, however, is still wearing down protestors, non-protesting students, and management alike. Over at UWC, the beefed-up security was taking its toll on student morale, with many complaining of the oppressive atmosphere and some alleging that the guards behaved inappropriately. Revised library hours were announced over the weekend, and those students who were writing from 9 November were wished luck on the UWC Student official Twitter account. Several students expressed concern at the circumstances under which they were writing, worried that they were feeling less motivated than usual, less able to concentrate or insufficiently prepared. “God will forgive me if I study for 50%,” one usually high-performing student said.
Students were particularly distressed by a heavy security presence. “Private security’s riot squad just walked past me now in full gear with shields,” Tweeted the official UWC Student voice, referring to campus as “the University of the Western Cape Military Base”. One student said it felt as though the security presence was there to intimidate would-be protestors. “I’m pretty sure there’s more security than students,” another said. One criticised the need to constantly have student cards visible, comparing it to being “a Bantu with his dompas under apartheid”. A particular theme from female students on social media was allegations of unwanted attention from male security officers, with one Tweeting: “And who exactly is being secured when we’re getting sexually harassed DAILY by these men?”
Other students, however, appeared more concerned with the stuff of protests, expressing concern that agreements were only met in order for exams to move forward, with limited intent to carry out these promises; yet others appeared to have a level of protest fatigue, saying the ongoing demands were unreasonable, and that agreements should be accepted, and normal life should resume.
At Stellenbosch University, meanwhile, eight contracted landscaping workers were allegedly dismissed for participating in a rally against outsourcing. The main trade union, NEHAWU, was still negotiating with the university to bring an end to outsourcing. The University itself was noticeably silent on the matter, having offered only a brief announcement on 4 November saying a Task Team was to investigate outsourcing on campus.
A light at the end of the tunnel emerged when government agreed to pay the lion’s share, 80%, of the R2.6 billion #FeesMustFall shortfall on Tuesday morning, with UCT’s Price expressing satisfaction at the announcement.
“In our meeting with the president we said to him we’re willing to go for zero percent, but only if the government can come up with the money, and at that meeting they said they would. And they did say the universities will have to find some of it that they couldn’t do at all, and we said that we understand that,” he said.
Photo: A photo made available 01 March 2010 shows an aerial view of the University of Cape Town campus below Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, 09 January 2010. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.