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UCT students claim police ‘punched’ and ‘trampled’ them as protests over housing rage on

UCT students claim police ‘punched’ and ‘trampled’ them as protests over housing rage on
South African Police Service members confront student leaders and demonstrators on UCT's Upper Campus. (Photo: Ernst Calitz)

Daily Maverick spoke to a number of students who described an intimidating police presence on campus, ‘flaunting hand grenades like it’s a joke’.

UCT students fuming over housing and financial exclusion continued their protest on Friday, gathering on Middle Campus where they were met with a heavy police presence.

A number of them spoke to Daily Maverick, describing a morning of violence and “chaos”:

Jamilla Da Costa-Dah, an undergraduate law student, said: “We went into class, we had our break and at the beginning of our second lecture, students came in masks and began to sing and disrupt the class. A lot of students in the lecture themselves joined in because we all agree with the fight for students. We joined in and the lecture then got dismissed…

“Students were instructed by the UCT executive to stay. We stayed. Upon us staying, students – both protesters and non-protesters – were standing in the Middle Campus foyer and police came in with shields. They then barricade in front of predominantly white students and push predominantly black students, without warning, violently. Students are falling, students are getting trampled on, it is genuine chaos.”

Da Costa-Dah said she too was pushed by police and saw a student being trampled. 

Lisa Makumese had a similarly violent encounter with police: “The officer, who is about two heads taller than me, punched me in the face – with his hands, not even his shield. When we fell, they [SAPS] proceeded to trample us.”

A group of law students, who preferred to be unnamed, shared their feelings about how UCT’s interim interdict had been used against students. 

“Anyone who is out here protesting is effectively in breach of the interdict. But that cannot be because they are not the ones barricading access to the faculty. There are students who came here to go to class, to do their tutorials, but because of police barricading the faculty entrances students can’t go in there. And the academic programme is continuing as is, so they are essentially forcing students to be in breach of the interdict,” one of them said.

“Should they ever decide to take proceedings in the university tribunal or in any other forum, all of the evidence that they may have from this is tainted by the fact that police have coerced students into being in breach with the interdict,” another added.

A member of UCT’s SRC addresses students about fee blocks in front of the Sarah Baartman Hall on 7 March 2023. (Photo: Ernst Calitz)

Yet another student noted how intimidating the police presence had been: “They are forcing this violence. They are all strapped with guns on their legs, they’ve got shields, they’re flaunting hand grenades like it’s a joke.”

The police maintained a presence on Friday afternoon.  

Daily Maverick sought comment from the police on the students claims of heavy-handedness but was yet to receive a response at the time of publishing.

As a response to Friday’s protest action and police presence, Elijah Mohalola, UCT spokesperson said  “Following the escalation of unlawful protest action at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Friday, 10 March 2023, law enforcement agencies intervened as per the interim interdict granted by the Western Cape High Court. A group of protesters disrupted lectures at a number of venues, including the New Lecture Theatre on upper campus and Kramer Building on middle campus. Public Order Policing (POPs) unit intervened and took charge of managing the Kramer area, as per the authority granted by the interdict.

UCT states that no instruction was issued by any university official, and POPS carried out their response to unlawful acts within the parameters of the interdict. The university understands that a few arrests were made for unlawful protest action in violation of the court order. UCT also understands that, in response to missiles being thrown, POPs responded in accordance with their standard operating procedures in order to disperse students.

The UCT executive reiterates its stance on upholding the right to legitimate protest, but will act against any unlawful activities.”

Rising tensions: roots of the protest

The protests began on Monday, 13 February, when the student representative council (SRC) called for a campus shutdown and encouraged the suspension of academic activity until their demands were met. 

Tensions rose when the university’s department of student housing made the decision to withdraw accommodation offers from students with fee blocks, a move that left many students without housing and which the SRC rejected as exclusionary

Housing issues at UCT were then exacerbated by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) decision to cap accommodation allowances at R45,000 this year, an amount deemed unfeasible by many when accounting for high costs of living and housing. 

The accommodation allowance caps have fuelled tensions on campuses throughout the country including the University of Witwatersrand where many students have also been left without meaningful solutions to the housing crisis.

In response, NSFAS said on Wednesday, 9 March: 

“In the meantime, NSFAS is in the process of identifying alternative accommodation to be provided within the stipulated rate of R45,000 per annum. […]

“Where necessary, NSFAS will have to take extraordinary measures to ensure that NSFAS-funded students are not left stranded due to skyrocketing accommodation costs.”

Read in Daily Maverick: 

UCT slams ‘unlawful’ shutdown, moves lectures online – but protesting students double down

‘This is not a new problem’ — protesting UCT students voice their dissatisfaction

On 17 February, UCT management announced that it had attained an interim interdict from the Western Cape High Court “in order to restore order on campus and protect the rights of all in our UCT community”. After the interdict was announced, protests died down and face-to-face campus activity resumed after the university moved to online learning during the protests. 

On Sunday, 5 March, the SRC responded to the interdict:

“On the 17th of February 2023, the Students’ Representative Council was delivered the news of an interdict lodged against them by the University of Cape Town. The SRC remains shocked over this, as it jeopardises our constitutional right to protest. However, we refuse to be silenced by the university that is meant to empower us.”

On Tuesday, 7 March, the SRC announced that after a five-hour meeting with the UCT Council, their proposal to lift fee blocks had been rejected.

According to the SRC, fee blocks affect more than 7,400 students and the decision not to lift them will put their academic future at risk. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

On Wednesday, 8 March, the SRC voiced support for students who chose to protest against this decision, and on Thursday it noted that students in temporary residences who are facing housing issues were being evicted.

“UCT executive, through the call of removal of these students, is abandoning students to sleep in inhumane and unsafe environments in the rain. The SRC rejects this dehumanising act of violence on students. And sees this an act of war against students,” their statement read.

Thursday-night escalation

On Thursday evening, students with support from the SRC went to the university’s Lower Campus to continue protesting. A small fire was lit, around which they sang struggle songs. 

The SRC demands that:

  • Students are not evicted from their temporary accommodation; and
  • Academic activities are halted until the decision not to lift fee blocks made by the council is changed.

Mohalola, told Daily Maverick: “The University of Cape Town (UCT) confirms that a group of protesters engaged in disruptive protest action outside Tugwell Residence on Lower Campus on Thursday evening, 9 March 2023. In terms of the interim interdict granted by the Western Cape High Court on Friday, 17 February 2023, these disruptive acts are unlawful.

“Accordingly, the SAPS and the Public Order Policing unit were called onto campus to intervene. The UCT executive reiterates its stance on upholding the right to legitimate protest, but will act against any unlawful activities. The executive further remains committed to a process of engagement over any issues.”

The university said it had made the following concessions in response to the protests:

  • Lifting the fee block threshold: As stated above, over 3,400 students have been able to register for the 2023 academic year as a result of the decision by Council to increase the fee block threshold from R1,000 to R10,000 for South African students;
  • Financial aid appeals: Over 250 students have had successful financial aid appeals. For 2022, data shows that, overall, at least R1.9-billion (unaudited) was spent in providing financial aid support to UCT students. This is an increase of R100-million compared with 2021;
  • Grace period: Almost 350 students have had successful grace period applications, enabling them to make arrangements to settle their outstanding debt within a reasonable period. Of these, 260 students on grace period have made payments and are now registered; and
  • Despite operating on a significant deficit budget for 2023, UCT remains committed to assisting financially needy students and has budgeted R355-million for student financial aid in 2023 – more than doubling the allocation from 2022.

Moholola added: “It remains a critical part of the executive’s fiduciary responsibility to ensure that fee debt does not grow year-on-year and that the university does not ‘lend’ recklessly as a result of fee payments not being made. UCT has, for example, a student whose outstanding debt is just over R500 000 and it would not be in the interests of neither the student nor the university if they were to accumulate more debt in 2023 without a payment plan for the existing fee debt.”

The SRC also noted that this is the first time in six years that SAPS has been called onto campus. 

The SRC pointed directly to Sue Harrison, the university’s acting vice-chancellor, for making this decision, saying: “This is in direct contradiction of the transformative stance of the former VC, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, to never criminalise students trying to express themselves, not even a week since our former vice-chancellor left office. In less than a week, students have been criminalised by their own university. The current vice-chancellor has wasted no time in undoing the hard work marginalised people have given to the transformative agenda of UCT.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    Shame, poor students, it’s so tough getting a taste of your own medicine. It’s ok for you to riot, rampage, burn, destroy and intimidate but the moment the SAPS pushes back, you scream and flee like the little milquetoast cowards you are.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    If you do not want to be caught up in illegal disruptive and violent protest stay well away and disassociate yourself from it, but if you prefer to indulge be prepared for the consequences.

  • David Walker says:

    So sad to witness the decline of a once great institution. But poor management and pandering to every student whim has led to this. And I suspect the law abiding, fee-paying, middle classes are deserting UCT in droves.

  • William Dryden says:

    I agree with Epsilon, couldn’t have put it better myself. As for the ones wearing masks to hide their identities, such cowards like those should be caught first and exposed before putting them in jail.

  • Chris 123 says:

    Get to your classrooms or go home this is not a holiday camp, how do some of these people qualify in the first place, ahh yes quotas, not academic achievement.

  • Denny Moffatt says:

    Immature and pathetic. As someone who paid for my own fees, and years later was involved in a University Council, I’ve seen both sides of the story.
    Universities cannot support every student.
    Grow up and appreciate your future. If you want one.

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