South Africa

Student protests spread, while Wits marks a worker’s death

By Greg Nicolson 27 September 2016

Protests at university campuses escalated on Monday, with students at more institutions demonstrating and managements responding. A University of Witwatersrand (Wits) worker has died, potentially as a result of protests at the Johannesburg institution. It could change the public and students’ view on protest methods. By GREG NICOLSON.

Wits announced on Monday it had received reports that a cleaner died last week after students protested. In a statement, the university said an employee of a service provider was rushed to hospital after students used a fire extinguisher at the Jubilee Hall residence.

The worker was rushed to the Campus Health and Wellness Centre and then taken to hospital where the worker was treated for a few days. The worker was discharged from hospital and then passed away. The cause of death is still to be determined,” said Wits.

The university said it was awaiting more information before commenting further.

Protesting Wits students, who have fought to improve conditions for outsourced workers, on Monday held a minute of silence when they heard the news. Their march then continued sombrely without the usual struggle songs. The Wits SRC said a delegation of students and academics would visit the family of the deceased worker and would reflect on protest methods to ensure the safety of the university community.

Students at campuses across the country have been criticised for using violence during protests demanding free education.

Wits’ suggestion that the cleaner died after inhaling fumes from a fire extinguisher protesters set off could cause students to lose public support for their cause.

The death comes as demonstrations spread to more campuses on Monday.

Student protests flared up across the country last week, following various but sporadic protests throughout the year, after Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande last week made a recommendation on 2017 fee increases at universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. Affected institutions on Monday moved to reduce tensions, with many announcing temporary closures.

Students at Wits met before marching to the university’s medical campus. They scrapped their plan to march to Vice Chancellor Adam Habib’s university-provided house to deliver a memorandum after he complained that it was meant to intimidate his family. Students said Habib has not met with protesters while he has done multiple media interviews. He has repeatedly questioned how much support demonstrating students have at Wits.

The university believes that the voices of the majority of students and staff need to be heard,” Wits said in a Monday statement. It plans to hold an anonymous poll this week asking students whether the academic programme should resume on 3 October. The university suspended academic activities indefinitely last week after protests began.

Wits’ main campus saw students clash with private security when they were prevented from entering Solomon Mahlangu House and police officers fired stun grenades and later rubber bullets. The university has asked the Independent Electoral Commission to help with its poll.

If the majority of students and staff support the reopening on Monday, 3 October 2016, the university will call upon government and the police to meet their obligations to protect the university’s property and to safeguard the lives of students and staff,” said Wits.

The decision comes after Wits published correspondence from students and parents who want studies to continue, claiming a minority is holding the futures of the majority ransom. Wits has 36,000 students while many of the protests have seen hundreds or 1,000 students come out in support. The poll is an attempt at providing a democratic way forward, given the difficulty of judging wider support for protest, but if it suggests studies should resume, that could further galvanise protesting students, especially as it will probably require increased security measures.

Former SRC president Mcebo Dlamini, who was prominent in last year’s protests, on Monday accused Habib of ignoring students while privileging the media. He called the vice chancellor a “pop star” who was “twerking” in public.

Speaking at the Wits medical campus, he listed claims of racism against black students.

We are going to hold the ground until we get free education,” said Dlamini.

He said students should not participate in the varsity’s poll. He also questioned the veracity of images showing three petrol bombs found at Wits, claiming private security officers may have placed them.

Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) students joined the protests on Monday. They marched through Pretoria, stopping at other learning institutions to build support and protested outside the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Speaking at Unisa, EFF Student Command President Mpho Morolane said other universities must also be closed while students demand free higher education. A Unisa official said the demand would be considered.

TUT, which saw protests at a number of its campuses on Monday, said it would begin its recess period early and cancel classes until October 10. Classes at all campuses have been put on hold, except at Soshanguve North and South, Polokwane and Mbombela.

Although the university recognises students’ right to protest, it also has a responsibility to ensure that no student is disadvantaged in the process,” the university said in a statement. Some tests scheduled in the interim will be delayed, while some others will go ahead.

The University of Pretoria has also suspended classes until October 10 by bringing forward the academic recess. It said that after an escalation of protests across the country, including the threat of violence, it would move the academic recess forward to ensure the safety of students, staff and property. Students in residences are requested to leave, although UP said special arrangements can be made, and there are plans for students to catch up lectures and tests. The university said it will continue to engage stakeholders on the demand for free education.

Despite recent protests, the University of KwaZulu-Natal remained open on Monday. Protests at its Pietermaritzburg campus led to a fire at one residence and the disruption of classes. According to reports, protesting students smeared faeces on computers. Lesiba Seshoka, executive director for corporate communications, said culprits had been identified and he expected arrests for arson to take place by Monday afternoon.

Protesting University of Free State students handed over a memorandum on Monday after the campus was closed last week. They demanded free education and, reflecting some of the intricacies each campus faces, the withdrawal of charges against students protesting in 2015. The university plans to resume activities on Tuesday.

On Monday, police shot rubber bullets at protesting University of Johannesburg students, who were on a break last week. The University of Cape Town remained closed on Monday after recent protests. Durban University of Technology students protested on Monday in the city, leading the institution to suspend practicals and assessments until Wednesday.

A meeting between management and students at North West University fell apart on Monday with students walking out. The varsity’s Mafikeng campus remains closed while the Vaal Triangle campus was also closed Monday.

Students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, closed since last week, are divided, with the SRC supporting a return to classes and other students wanting to continue protests. In light of the division, the university has suspended classes indefinitely.

Widespread protests began on campuses last week after education minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on fees. Balancing the need for varsity funding with demands from poor and middle class students, he recommended that universities and TVET colleges cap 2017 fee increases at 8%. Government plans cover those increase for students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the “missing middle”, which Nzimande announced would be for students with a household income of up to R600,000. The minister said it means 70% to 80% of undergraduates would not pay fee increases in 2017, costing government an estimated R2.5-billion.

Protesting students have reacted by saying free education remains their key demand. Nzimande, while expressing sympathy to struggling students, has referred to the commission of inquiry on the feasibility of free education, and said ongoing student protests only benefit the wealthy.

Students, however, have expressed doubts about the commission and want an immediate commitment to free tertiary education, claiming that fees, even if increases are covered, remain too high. They have also raised issues of transformation and racism at varsities, along with other campus-specific demands. DM

Photo: Wits student leaders march silently on Monday, holding hands after hearing that a university cleaner had died, reportedly after falling sick when a fire extinguisher was let off by students during a protest. (Greg Nicolson)

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