Wits students protest on day four, 19 October 2015, of a total shutdown of the institution over fee increases.
If there was ever a sign that the students involved in the current campus protests are not willing to have their issues co-opted for political gain, it came on Tuesday morning.
Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane had intended to spend the day at the University of Johannesburg, but he was refused permission on the grounds that such a visit would take weeks to organise. Instead, the DA chose to target students closer to home, at the University of Cape Town (UCT). An alert was duly sent to media, informing them that Maimane would “engage with students” to “hear their plight”.
The visit was disastrous. Students had been gathering at UCT since the early morning – undeterred by arrests the previous evening when UCTshutdown campaigners refused to evacuate the university&39;s administration headquarters. As was the case on Monday, they began by barricading entrances to the campus, this time by means of burning tyres. In accordance with the court order obtained by UCT management the previous day, which provides for the arrest of those who bar access to campus or disrupt academic activities, police duly bundled students into vans and took them to the Rondebosch police station for processing.
Although this meant entrance to the campus was effectively clear early in the day, UCT management nonetheless took the decision to suspend teaching and exams for another day.
On the second day of their protest, students ventured off campus. A noticeably larger group than on Monday marched down Rondebosch Main Road, stopping off at university residences to swell their numbers. At UCT’s medical campus, in Observatory, they were welcomed in. From there, the students continued their march to a nearby residence, and were taking a break from the scorching heat when Maimane and his colleagues arrived for a chat.
When the group of several hundred students spotted Maimane, their response was instantly hostile. Advancing on him, students yelled “Leave! Leave!”, using dismissive hand gestures, quite literally pushing him out of the parking lot. “We don’t need your support,” Pam Dhlamini, one of the student leaders, informed him.
Talking to journalists while exiting rather rapidly, Maimane denied that he was disappointed with the students’ reception. “No, not at all,” he told Daily Maverick. He attributed the hostility to the fact that the students were members of the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco), which is aligned to the African National Congress (ANC), and said this was why they were reluctant to criticise Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and the government. When it was pointed out that only some of the students present were Sasco members, and others carried placards openly critical of the government, Maimane nonetheless stuck to his guns.
While he was addressing journalists, a passing student yelled: “Go away with your opportunism! Where were you when we needed you?” As Maimane left, an aide was murmuring to him about the need to be photographed in discussion with students.
A subsequent press statement put out by the DA made no mention of these events, beyond stating: “The legitimate concerns of students were drowned out by the voices of Sasco who are defending the failures of the ANC and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande.”
But the DA is badly misreading the mood of students if it thinks they are hell-bent on protecting Nzimande. This much was made clear by responses to the minister’s announcement of the outcomes of his emergency meeting with university administrators on Tuesday.
The meeting, convened at a central Cape Town hotel, brought Nzimande together with “stakeholders” who included six university vice-chancellors, the executive committee of the University of South Africa, union representatives, and students from the South African Union of Students. The participants were in discussion behind closed doors for around seven hours, with Nzimande leaving to pay a visit to President Jacob Zuma shortly before a press briefing was called to announce their conclusions.
Nzimande, who elicited consternation on social media on Monday when he said the situation on universities was “not a crisis”, appeared calm. He said stakeholders had agreed to return to their constituencies to suggest a cap on fee increases of 6% for 2016. Nzimande underscored the importance of the “immediate resumption of academic activity”, and said that although all those present respected the right to peaceful protest, acts of violence should be condemned.
It was a short and underwhelming statement. In response to a question about how the fee increase cap could work considering that next year’s fees have already been set, Nzimande replied that both the Department of Higher Education and universities “will seek to raise money to deal with the shortfall”. He stressed that the fee cap was only “to deal with the immediate problem”. A task team is being established to look at “the whole issue of fees”, and will report back in six months.
One of the issues which has been debated most in recent days is which body bears ultimate responsibility for dealing with student grievances: universities or the government? Nzimande said that his is a difficult position. “If there is a problem at a university […] and I sit back and do nothing, people say ‘Where is Blade? Nzimande has disappeared’. If I act, I often get accused of interference.” Asked if students should rightfully be marching to the Union Buildings, rather than to university administration buildings, Nzimande shrugged, saying it wasn’t his place to tell students what to do.
University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) vice-chancellor Adam Habib characterised the relationship between universities and the government as one of “cooperative governance”, where “institutions are free to make our own decisions, but the system is the steward”. He reiterated that the funding shortfall which will now be caused by increasing fees by a smaller amount than projected will be borne by universities in partnership with the government.
Habib described the meeting as having provided a “very productive way going forward”, and having offered “enough to prompt negotiations”.
Will students feel the same?
Student representative at the meeting Tebogo Thothela said the “unwavering, uncompromising” position throughout the country was that “fees must fall”.
“We’ve shared that the demand is still strong for 0% fees,” Thothela said, but he added that negotiations were undertaken in “good faith”. Nonetheless, he conceded that returning to students to try to sell them the 6% fee increase would be a “difficult task”.
Nzimande acknowledged that it was possible that students would reject the 6% increase. “Then we must engage,” he said. But he appeared to warn that free university education was a distant dream. “Education is expensive,” Nzimande said. “In all conflict situations, there is always the necessity to compromise. No party gets 100% of what it wants.” If fees were to be done away with, he said, “then you are saying let’s wipe R22-billion off the system”.
The minister said he had explained the outcome of the discussion to Zuma, who had “expressed relief that at least there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel”.
But is that light coming from an oncoming train? Nzimande appealed to students to accept the cap on university fee increases, but initial signs after the announcement were not encouraging. Wits student leader Mcebo Dlamini was adamant that the Johannesburg students wanted no fee increases at all, let alone a 6% raise. Protesting UCT students also took to social media to express disbelief at the proposal.
Between Maimane and Nzimande, the message seemed to be: politicians just aren’t getting it.
- The Daily Maverick