South Africa

South Africa

#FeesMustFall: Worst-Case Wednesday

#FeesMustFall: Worst-Case Wednesday

Late on Wednesday afternoon, news broke that the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was suspending its academic year, although students would still be writing exams. The university also responded, in detail, to the current list of student demands. Judging by developments on campus through the day, though, the drama was nowhere near over. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

When news broke on Wednesday afternoon that UWC would be suspending its academic year, there was an initial outcry. It emerged shortly, however, that it was campus classes that were being suspended, and that students could write exams in November 2016 or January 2017. More specific details, university management said, would be down to individual departments and disciplines.

The Executive issued a statement following its Senate meeting, saying: “All face-to-face classes are suspended. The exact mode of the completion of the academic programme, where needed, will be faculty and discipline-specific and managed by deans and heads of departments.

“Students are given a choice of writing their main examinations either in November 2016 or January 2017… Students who qualify for Supplementary Examinations will be given the opportunity to write those in January 2017.”

The announcement followed a turbulent day on campus, where arrests had been made throughout the day. In the morning, security staff reported that they had found petrol bombs and petrol containers hidden across the campus. UWC spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo confirmed that police were investigating, with a police dog unit attempting to locate other explosives. Students and staff were warned to stay off campus.

Later on Wednesday, Kovacs UWC Student Village was set alight, with students reporting that police released stun grenades, teargas and rubber bullets within the residences. Students claimed security staff brutalised and arrested them unprovoked.

The Special Meeting of the Senate Executive Committee was called in view of the “national situation, and the uncertainty around the stability and safety on our campus”, the university said.

In a detailed memorandum outlining its response to student demands, the Executive said it had opted not to attend the mass meeting called by students for Wednesday as the previous mass meeting on Monday had not proved productive.

It said some of the protesters’ demands could not be met by the university itself, as they were either “system issues”, required third party interventions, or were “national issues that the university cannot solve on its own”.

The cumulative financial impact of meeting the demands is currently approximated at R530 million, the Executive said. Inclusive of the current debt (2015), the student debt is approximately R283 million, and it would not be able to write off this debt without further assistance from government.

It would not be able to subsidise students staying at Kovacs – which it does not own – without incurring a further cost of R17,600,000 for 2017, which would increase annually, it added. Abolishing registration fees would cost another R24.2 million, plus another R60 million for a no-fee increase.

Students have also demanded off-campus internet access, which the university says will cost R43.2 million per annum for 18,000 off-campus students. “However, we will engage the City of Cape Town to prioritise Wi-Fi hotspots in the communities where students live,” it promised. “The University will continue to engage cell phone service providers for their assistance.”

Currently outsourced staff were receiving an extra cash amount of R2,000 per month to augment their salaries (total: R78 million) as well as a study rebate for themselves, their spouses and children, and talks were continuing between Council, Management, the workers and their employers on improving their working conditions, the Executive said.

A further R6 million per annum was needed for sanitary towels for 60% of the student population (UWC committed to approach relevant NGOs as well as provincial government to assist). The university also committed to maintaining more vigilance against sexual violence, including a working group to review the Sexual Violence Policy and a comprehensive review of the working order of panic buttons, lights and other security equipment.

There is likely to be ongoing tension around the fact that the university says it is unable to write off historic debt or provide transport for off-campus students. It has also noted it’s not able to determine book prices, as these are set by bookstores – but it is unlikely that negotiations will continue without at least a request for subsidy.

Other issues raised included increased accommodation for students; facilitating space for students to operate their own small businesses on campus; and symbolic graduations for students with outstanding fees, which means students receive a letter of completion that can be presented to prospective employers.

Negotiations have concluded successfully on a few issues, including the scrapping of vacation fees for nursing students, the monitoring of private accommodation quality, the renaming of buildings, some registration processes and more detailed financial reporting.

Continuing points of contention are likely to arise around security staff on campus, however. Students have demanded demilitarisation and the end of criminalisation and/or victimisation, with the Executive responding that any evidence of the latter will be welcomed for investigation – but that it has a responsibility to ensure safety. It also distanced itself from any reported unethical behaviour on the part of SAPS, saying: “SAPS interventions are not under the command of the University or its management. Their action is autonomous.”

But students – while warned to stay off campus – took to social media to express their distress at both the ongoing unrest and the Executive’s announcement. One said it was unrealistic to write exams. @KaylaLinks said police were racially abusing students; another, @ChustarWana, claimed an officer shot through her window because she was looking out of it.

Others posted pictures of what appeared to be injured students, at least two bleeding from facial wounds following the day’s events on campus. “The campus is not safe at all,” one said.

“UWC is a war zone,” FeesMustFall Western Cape said on Wednesday evening. “We are not safe.” But without external intervention, it’s unlikely safety will be restored for anyone any time soon. DM

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