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Student protests: Only external help can fix us now, say CPUT staff

Student protests: Only external help can fix us now, say CPUT staff

By midday on Tuesday, concerned staff members at CPUT had taken matters into their own hands following yet more fires on campus on Monday night. They want to bring out the big guns, and not the shooting kind: external counselling. Following the total closure of the campus, more than 55 members of staff issued an urgent call for mediation, with the signatures on their petition growing in numbers. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Dozens of professors, lecturers and staff from various faculties of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), including Education, Information Technology and Business added their names to a petition calling urgently for mediation on campus on Tuesday, with the petition still growing in support at the time it was sent to Daily Maverick.

Shaheed Mahomed, who led the petition, is currently a lecturer in the Education department and described himself as a “concerned staff member”.

As concerned and committed staff of CPUT, we would like to affirm some of the core values of our university: the spirit of Ubuntu, the spirit of mutual respect, the principle of equity, accountability for our actions, and our belief that these principles should underpin our responses to the current crisis, and the decision making for a way forward,” he said.

The current crisis is complex and there are no easy answers. We recognise how difficult it is to respond to events that unfold in such a rapid manner and overwhelm us. This week and today, the very existence and future of our university is threatened. It is therefore vital that all stakeholders are respected and listened to with the aim of being understood.”

Mahomed’s call comes at a time where violence is arguably at a tipping point. On Monday night, a financial aid building was severely damaged when it was set alight for the second time. A spokesperson for CPUT, Lauren Kansley, said on Tuesday afternoon that the cost of the damages had not been estimated, yet, and that no arrests or disciplinary procedures had been instituted.

According to Kansley, the more militant protestors had been “terrorising” students who wished to write exams. “Non-protesting students have been terrorised into joining, and upon leaving the safety of their dorms often return to a looted room,” she said. “Security guards have been hounded away and the doors to residences, which are usually carefully monitored, are now being left open through the day and night, a safety risk for female students especially.

We will be accommodating final year students who need additional time to complete their exams this year, and international students who need additional time before leaving for home*. These requests are being dealt with via faculties and students must reach out directly to faculty managers to arrange this.”

Mahomed and the petitioners said it was critical at this stage to call upon all role players at CPUT “to participate in a process of inclusive mediation and open conversation, facilitated by neutral external third parties”.

We request for the urgent opening of channels of communication between all stakeholders on campus, that are ongoing and sustainable, and that have at their centre a future non-violent approach,” he said. “We regard this as a matter of extreme urgency, to be resolved as soon as possible in the best interests of all parties and CPUT at large.”

The petitioners want the process of mediation to achieve a number of primary objectives, including clearing up the content of previous negotiations between management and students, and increasing open and transparent communication between staff, faculty and executive management. The mediators would also assist in carrying out the processes set in motion and the agreements reached thus far with the STC and other representatives of the student movement.

It should also be noted that although the Student Representative Council (SRC) is the elected representative body, it is necessary at “at this historic moment” to include broader engagement with “all relevant student, parents, alumni and staff interest groups”, Mahomed said. “We implore that the CPUT council and chancellor participate in this process,” he added.

The crisis committee mandated by the CPUT Council to implement the agreement between students and council has not yielded the intended outcomes. There is currently a serious lack of clarity as to what was agreed, negotiated and implemented. It appears that CPUT management has reneged on the agreement,” he said.

We are in agreement with our colleagues at UWC that what has been experienced on campus is the multiple manifestations of violence at both the physical, emotional and deeper structural levels. We do not condone the turn to physical violence on property and person over the last weeks.”

That said, although executive management intended to safeguard students and staff by closing campuses, closure of residences and suspension of examinations “might spur further violence” by giving rise to a climate of “mistrust, resistance and fear”, Mahomed said.

We reiterate the importance of a move toward non-violent approaches on all levels.”

The vice-Chancellor CPUT, Dr Prins Nevhutalu, said university management had been forced to shut down the university and vacate residences to protect students and university property. Students who were not able to vacate residences immediately were asked to leave by Wednesday, while exams for students not leaving the university were postponed until 11 January. Students who were scheduled to graduate or exit their courses would be notified of their revised exam timetables as soon as possible, the university said.

For the past few weeks CPUT has been held hostage by a group of students who are determined to make the university ungovernable,” Nevhutalu said earlier. “The academic activities have been disrupted and the destruction of university property has continued unabated. We regret the trauma that has been suffered by students and staff during this period.”

Feedback on social media painted a picture of a devastated campus. “@UWConline @CPUT & @FeesMustFall are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. Others engage through Police brutality others through vandalism,” one disillusioned student said.

Meanwhile, many of the students at CPUT were on Tuesday allegedly refusing to vacate their residences. At the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University things were not faring much better. Early on Tuesday, Newswire reported that protestors faced the stun grenade treatment while rattling the gates of the Stellenbosch police station. Four Stellenbosch University workers had been arrested, the wire service said.

Crowds of workers and students were reportedly making their way down the streets after the four arrests to protest against outsourcing. Bins had been set alight in the Neelsie and in Victoria Road. A security guard who was outsourced told News24 he was protesting because if the university did not insource, workers would “die in poverty”. He earned a “lousy pittance”, he said, and his pay only lasted a day because the outsourcing company received most of the money. Workers reportedly warned that they would continue protesting until insourcing became a reality as at UCT.

As reported earlier in the week, UWC was still set to remain closed until further notice, after the ResLife building and security booths at the Kovacs building were set alight. Three protestors were arrested, the university said, but over 400 final-year students did write their exams without interruption off campus. According to the university, its council is scheduled to meet within days to deliberate further on protester demands. The university has already committed to not increasing fees, waiving registration fees for indigent students, and allowing students who are performing well academically but who have outstanding fees to register in 2016.

Still up for discussion are the writing off of historic debt, as well as the subsidising of insourced workers.

A statement from Vice-Chancellor, Tyrone Pretorius, called the situation “tense”, “volatile” and “untenable”: “There continues to be a group of protestors on campus and the situation remains tense and volatile. As communicated earlier, a part of the ResLife building was set on fire. Later… protestors were seen moving around the residences with tyres. Security and the police confronted them and confiscated approximately 70 tyres. [L]itter bins containing bricks, stones, sticks and shields were also confiscated. Protestors also forced open the turnstile gate on Robert Sobukwe Road and forced their way onto campus.

We are not sure whether these are all UWC students. In addition, protestors continued to light fires between Basil February and Dos Santos residences and this situation is being carefully monitored. The situation in residences has become untenable.”

Yet parents of students at CPUT and UWC issued a statement in which they defended the actions of their children, requesting understanding. “We know our children. They are not violent nor hooligans. We strenuously reject the crude propaganda of university management to cast them in this light. This is nothing short of attempting to criminalise the student struggle so as to avoid negotiating with their legitimate demands and grievances,” the statement read.

As parents we do not condone violence. We do not believe, however, that there is a symmetry between the violence of armed police and private security forces that indiscriminately shoot at students and their resistance.”

The statement, issued by the Fees Must Fall Parents Solidarity Committee, further criticised a lack of engagement from authorities. “There is a pattern of behaviour from those in power and their armed forces, which got its most heinous expression in the Marikana massacre, that suggests that when protests are directed at authority, there is no need to engage. Rather the security forces are substituted for political processes…

We also believe it is important to contextualise the student confrontations. In most cases it emerges as frustration with high-handed and unaccountable behaviour of the university management.”

The committee, much like the staff at CPUT, called for a higher level of engagement and mediation, requesting, among other things:

  • A special council where FMF can raise their concerns, demands and grievances;
  • The removal of all security forces from campuses;
  • The withdrawal of all charges against students, and allowing all students to have access to campus and residences;
  • The ceasing of all evictions from residences;
  • The running of catch-up classes for exam preparation;
  • Psychological support.

At UCT, protests were relatively contained, with a faeces-throwing plot derailed on Monday night. The university is, however, urging students to let the law run its course after a student was arrested for rape on campus and pictures of the suspect were widely circulated on social media. DM

* It has been announced that Visa extensions have been approved for a number of international students.

Photo: On Friday 13th November, students were arrested and taken from their residences at CPUT. Photo by Masixole Feni for GroundUp.


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