Protests at UCT lead to classes being suspended

The protesters march along Jameson Plaza.

Prominent Rhodes Must Fall activist Athabile Nonxuba led a group of more than 300 student activists to the UCT Upper Campus on Tuesday September 20 as lectures were once again suspended in the wake of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on the 2017 fee increment decision.

Forming a human chain as they made their way across the sports field to the campus, the students sang struggle songs and marched peacefully shortly before the university took a decision to suspend classes for the day as well as yesterday, Wednesday September 21.

In the past week, protests have regularly disrupted classes as students have called for the resinstatement of peers who have either been expelled or suspended from UCT. However, Tuesday’s action was mostly in response to Mr Nzimande’s announcement that the authority to determine fee adjustments lay with university councils.

The minister also recommended that fee adjustments not go beyond eight percent.

Dancing and speaking through a loudhailer, Mr Nonxuba told the activists that they “remained visitors in their own land”.

“Education is a right, not a privilege,” the charismatic public policy and administration student , who also chairs the UCT chapter of the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania, said to deafening applause.

“How does it help a student to sit in a lab to finish an essay when you know you won’t be here next year because you can’t afford it? Knowing that next year who will have to pay back R120 000 you don’t have?”

Mr Nonxuba said many students were leaving UCT because they could no longer afford tuition.

“Why do you criticise our struggle, when you should be coming to the students for clarity?” he asked, referencing university management. “You must come and engage us, not go on to Facebook to criticise us.”

On Monday September 19, UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price conceded that when protests escalated rapidly, the university was unable to guarantee students could remain focused on their work and “protected from those who disrupt it”.

“We have no access control on this open campus. Many protesters are not UCT students – some are from other campuses; there are farmworkers from Robertson, school children from Khayelitsha, and others,” he said.

“The lack of access control also means we are generally unable to stop interdicted or suspended students from getting onto campus. We have chosen to have a low-key Campus Protection Service as the norm. Their responsibility and competence is to protect staff, students, visitors and property from crime. They have neither the numbers nor the training to manage crowds.

“Under normal conditions, maintaining a higher level of security is unnecessary and expensive. And a stronger, more assertive security presence has drawn a strongly critical reaction from many at UCT in the past. Hence our decision to err on the side of low-key security personnel up to this point.”

Dr Price said while there were times when protest was for a widely supported cause, as it was a year ago in support of increased government funding for universities, “this current series of protests is focused more immediately on the fate of five students who have been found by tribunals and courts to have contravened the law”.

“Two of the five have been expelled but are appealing their sentence. The other three were in a tribunal held on Thursday last week and the outcome is expected shortly. Three of the five are also interdicted by a court from coming onto campus.”

He said university management believed that students from other universities and various other people had been urged to join to make UCT the focal point for the initial protests, which, if successful, would be expanded to other university campuses nationwide.

“There have been threats of arson attacks that we are taking seriously. There is an explicit plan to occupy the library and possibly branch libraries. We have decided, for now, not to escalate private security to the level required to contain classroom and building disruptions, which requires a significantly heavier, hands-on security presence. This would be at a level we have not initiated in the past and which we believe may make many people uncomfortable. We may get there, but we do not want to step up to that level until absolutely necessary.

“In view of the near certainty of disruption today, we believe it is better to avoid the inevitable distress to staff and students who may be involved with tests or studying.”