Nationwide university shutdown looms, more campuses join protests
University campus protests continued for a second day as students demanded that historical debt be scrapped to allow students to register for the 2021 academic year.
The South African Union of Students (SAUS) has threatened to call for a national shutdown of all tertiary campuses next week if Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande does not respond to its demand by 5pm on Friday, 12 March.
The student protest against financial exclusion, which started in Braamfontein, Johannesburg has now spread to campuses across the country.
SAUS claimed in a statement that ,“Vice-Chancellors across the country, are comfortable with earning high salaries that go up to R5-million in return to sanction murderous police on their own students; they are complicit in the violence and death of students and citizens who are violated and killed by instructions from university management”.
The union said after “robust engagements with Student Representative Councils [SRC], the meeting resolved to pledge our support to all SRCs currently engaged in protest action against financial exclusion; to submit letter of demands to the Minister of Higher Education and Training who has until Friday [12 March 2021, 17:00] to respond positively to all demands”.
It said if Nzimande failed to respond favourably, SRCs have given a clear mandate to engage with the South African Further Education and Training Student Association, which represents TVET colleges, and “all student political formations in preparation for rolling mass actions and a national shutdown of all higher education institutions from Monday 15 March 2021”.
Some of their demands include:
- The clearance of historical debts for all students to ensure smooth registration;
- Justice for the family of Mthokozisi Ntumba, who was killed by police on 10 March 2021 in Braamfontein during protests outside Wits;
- An end to police brutality and victimisation of protesting students;
- The immediate provision of post-graduate funding;
- Laptops for students as the academic year starts;
- All student allowances to be released in March, at the start of the academic year, as “landlords are already harassing students for payment”;
- Free registration for all students;
- A 0% increase in fees for the 2021 academic year; and
- The return of all students to campus under lockdown level 1 (students who are from homes with no connectivity are already being excluded from online registration and classes).
These demands come after a week of protests as students across the country prepare to register for the 2021 academic year.
On Thursday, 11 March, the North Gauteng High Court set aside an earlier decision to cut first-year student intake by 20,000 at the University of South Africa (Unisa). The Economic Freedom Fighters had taken Nzimande and the institution to court over the matter.
Then came the protests against financial exclusion at the Witwatersrand University (Wits) which resulted in police opening fire at students, which led to the death of Mthokozi Ntumba, a father, who was returning from a doctor’s visit in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Read in Daily Maverick: Mthokozisi Ntumba’s family members demand justice
Protests continued on Friday morning, but have since spread to other campuses across the country.
Daily Maverick attempted to contact Nzimande’s office on Friday morning for a response to these demands, as well as the threat of a shutdown and the issues related to Unisa. However, the ministry was not able to respond by publication. Once Daily Maverick receives a comment, it will be added to this story.
What’s been happening across the country
On Friday, News24 reported 24 students were arrested by police in Bloemfontein, during a protest at the University of the Free State.
Wits Student Council said it would not meet with the university. Mpendulo Mfeka, the SRC president, told Daily Maverick a meeting would only occur on “fair terms” and not one which would compromise their position.
Four SRC members and three other students have been suspended by the university for their involvement in the protests. Mfeka said the suspended students are now homeless. “We will only meet to talk with anyone if the suspension is lifted,” he said. “These students are homeless now because they have been asked to leave their residences.”
Mfeka said the plan for Friday was to render Johannesburg ungovernable until their demands are met. “It’s not a mandate that is coming from me; I get my voice from the crowd who tell me what to do and how to achieve our goals,” he explained. Mfeka said the protests have moved beyond the demands for free education for poor students but are now also focussed on improving the lives of people living in rural communities.
Mfeka scoffed at suggestions students might be afraid, saying they are fighting for their lives.“No one is scared and you can see it on their faces,” he said. “I think they are seeing this [protests] as a movement by the 1976 generation. But this is different because we have a duty to demand for better education and even if this must come at the cost our lives, we will be happy to do that.”
Cebolenkosi Khumalo, the chairperson of the Progressive Youth Alliance and Wits South African Students Congress (Sasco) confirmed the university had asked to meet at the Solomon Mahlangu Building, but said the suspensions was an attempt to stop the protest. “The fact that other universities are revolting [sic] and joining us is good for the protest,” he said, adding, “students are facing a lot of issues where they live.”
“Most of them [students] do not have a conducive learning environment or opportunities; no electricity or facilities like laptops to learn and study and some have lost their parents to Covid-19 and this makes the situation difficult for them. Government is failing us, especially black students,” he said.
Mfeka said they’re waiting to regroup before proceeding with the protests on Friday. “I knew what was at stake when I left home,” said Portia Pule, a student who came out for the protests. “I am also affected by this and that is the reason I cannot be a coward to stay at home and observe through social media.”
Shirona Patel, head of communications at Wits University did not respond to queries.
Despite the clampdown on students and Wits SRC executives, the protesters are undeterred. “Nothing will deter us,” Mfeka claimed. “See the numbers are increasing compared to a few hours ago. This will show you the commitment of everyone here.
“Education freedom,” said Mfeka, raising his fist as he moved to join a group of students who were singing and clapping in a circle.
Later in the day, Mfeka and his council members led protesting students through the streets, burning tyres. Police helped redirect traffic around the area where barricades were set up by the protesters.
More protesters joined in along the way. They marched to the Johannesburg City Council and stopped at the miners’ monument by David McGregor. They tied a rope around the sculpture, which pays tribute to the city’s mining origins, and set it on fire.
“Our fight is not only to fight free access to education but also to decolonise everything that holds us down,” Mfeka said. “This symbol reminds us of our past”. A team of metro police arrived at the scene to prevent them from pulling the sculptures. But the protesters were adamant and continued pulling until another group of police officers arrived at the scene in about 10 vans and started cutting off the ropes.
A minor confrontation between the police team and the protesters started and Mfeka was manhandled but there was no use of force. One of the protesters, Nkateko Muloiwa twisted his ankle during confrontation with the police and was being assisted by fellow protesters.
“Comrades keep fighting, that white man must fall,” he said, urging the protesting students from where they were lying down. “We are pulling down the white man because our symbolism is to decolonise every white relic which stands above us.”
Mfeka addressed the students briefly in front of the monument and asked them to proceed to base so they can regroup. Midway, the students turned back and headed to the campus. Gates were locked and police officers in riot gear were standing guard, so the protesters danced and marched around the school gate. “We should not destroy our school structures,” Mfeka told the protesters when they started hitting the metal barricades in front of the gate. “We do not vandalise property or do anything that is dangerous to our own education.”
UCT says it is ‘aware of the issues’
At the University of Cape Town (UCT) students met on Friday at 6am in solidarity with the #Witsasinamali protest.
Daily Maverick saw students walking along Mowbray Main Road to UCT’s middle campus. At about 9:30am, Daily Maverick noticed a heavy police presence at the intersection of Meadow Road and the M4. The students occupied the Kramer Law building on middle campus, where the financial aid offices are located, at about 10am. A group of students said the protesters planned to occupy the building until campus management and administration came to address their funding struggles.
The group was “occupying the building, as it is the centre of student issues, student financial aid… the fees office…and the [residence] office,” some students told Daily Maverick. At about 11:17am, UCT SRC president Declan Dyer addressed the crowd, saying that the plan was to walk to the Vice Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng’s residence so that she can address their financial woes. According to the SRC, there are about 2,500 students facing financial exclusion and who are unable to register for the 2021 academic year.
In a statement released on Friday, UCT issued a statement that it was “aware of the issues” that have been raised by the SRC, and has engaged with the council over its concerns.
UCT has set aside R30m to assist students with historic debt. The university spent R1.4 billion on student funding in 2020. UCT has about 1 655 students with historic debt. The UCT executive remains committed to engaging with the SRC. Read more: https://t.co/9cFA83mufv pic.twitter.com/Ogu7vhXfm9
— UCT (@UCT_news) March 12, 2021
“The provision of financial assistance to eligible students at undergraduate and postgraduate level is one of UCT’s key priorities”. With regards to historical debt, the institution said that it has “put measures in place to assist eligible students with historic debt”.
The university has set aside about R30-million for any student with historic debt and called on students with historical debt to apply through the annual financial aid appeals process. UCT has about 1 655 students with historic debt, amounting to R88-million, it said.
“We are here today to say everyone should be registered by [Monday, 15 March 2021],” said deputy secretary general of UCT’s Res Council, Sipho Labithi.“We are mobilising not just against this immediate issue, but the larger, broader issue of marginalisation of students by universities,” said Labithi. The lack of resources, such as mobile data and laptops, and the issue of student debt are other reasons behind their protest.
“We don’t want them to just register students…we want [them] to get rid of historical debts,” said Labithi. The issues of funding that the students are protesting against, are not “new”, he said.
Labithi drew “similarities” between the recent wave of student protests and the Fees Must Fall protests, which began in 2015. “We find ourselves in a moment, where the anger of the students is almost reaching a climax.” DM
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