STUDENT protests over fee increases which have resulted in the closure of several universities are not a national crisis, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said on Monday as he announced an urgent meeting with representatives from universities, student bodies, and workers set for Tuesday.
“Yes, it is a challenge, but I wouldn’t call it a crisis because we have ways and means of discussing the matter,” Nzimande said while addressing journalists at a media briefing in Pretoria.
So far, Wits University, the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and Fort Hare University have been affected by the protests, Nzimande said.
“I am tomorrow [Tuesday] convening a meeting with representative delegations of vice-chancellors, university council chairs, students and workers, to discuss and come up with a common framework and approach to the issue of university fee increases for 2016,” he said.
“An approach must be developed in order to come up with a dispensation that takes into account the difficult circumstances facing especially the students who come from poor families, as well as financial pressures facing the system.”
Nzimande called on university management to be more sensitive and cautious when deciding on fee increases.
“It is imperative that they consult all relevant stakeholders in order to minimise the detrimental impact on poor students,” he said.
Nzimande also called on students to give negotiations with management a chance.
“Students need to be brought on board for frank and honest discussions so as to ensure that there is stability in our institutions,” the minister said.
But Witwatersrand University’s council indicated on Monday it would not meet with protesting students inside Senate House.
“Council will not engage with students in Senate House. Council has instructed Wits University’s executive management to clear and secure Senate House today by 15:00,” the university said in a statement.
“Staff and students are therefore requested to leave the building immediately.”
Earlier today protesting Witwatersrand University students took to the streets of Braamfontein on to intensify their demand against the proposed 2016 tuition fee increase.
They marched peacefully, singing revolutionary songs, as they made their way through Braamfontein’s streets.
Led by leaders from most political formations at Wits, they held sticks high in the air and screamed: “No to fee increase!”
Many wore Progressive Youth Association (PYA) and EFF red regalia. Medical students donned their uniforms and carried stethoscopes around their necks.
In Cape Town the vice-chancellor of the Univeristy of Cape Town (UCT) Dr Max Price on Friday sent a warning to student and staff protesters who had breached agreements regarding the occupation of UCT’s administration building and what constituted acceptable protest action.
“We have informed the occupiers that should they not comply, we will have no choice but to approach the high court for an order compelling them to do so,” said Price in a letter addressed to students.
He was referring to the occupation of the administration building, Bremner, which began on March 20.
The Student Representative Council (SRC), led by Ramabina Mahapa, along with the student movement “Rhodes Must Fall” agreed with the University that they would occupy the building until the removal of the statue.
The statue, of Cecil John Rhodes, was removed on Thursday evening.
“The SRC had always indicated that it would end the occupation of the Bremner building following the removal of the statue. They have honoured this commitment,” said Price.
However, members of the movement – which had allegedly splintered following the removal – were in contravention of the agreement because a number of them are still occupying the building. Protester Chumani Maxwele was part of the occupying group.
Price said the University had given the remaining protesters an order to vacate by 2pm on Friday.
“We have informed students that failure to comply with the requirement that they end their occupation will be unlawful, will be a contravention of the rules of conduct and will have disciplinary consequences,” he said.
Price said the University remained open to mediation with the occupier group should they accept the invitation to do so.
These same students had, over the course of the week, declared that “transformation is the maintenance and perpetuation of oppression”, that “our only regret is that we did not take the statue down ourselves. Going forward we will no longer compromise. Management is our enemy”, and that “let it be known that Azania House (Bremner) is ours and we will not leave.”
Furthermore, the students declared publicly on Thursday that “the Constitution (is) a document which violently preserves the status quo”.
Price stated that the group had crossed the line of “acceptable protest” which included the disruption of the Council meeting on Wednesday evening.
“This behaviour was completely unacceptable, challenged the authority of Council and will result in prosecutions of the students involved,” he said.
Price also referred to student protesters chanting “one settler, one bullet”.
“I wish to express my dismay that this has happened, condemn all acts of intimidation and reckless utterances as they have no place in our democracy and are in serious conflict with the values of the University,” he said.
Price said the University was investigating referring the cases to the Human Rights Commission.
Equally, Price said the University was “disgusted” by racial remarks made on social media sites and that UCT was investigating every one of them.
“Most are under pseudonyms and cannot be traced. Where there are names, we have not been able to link any such postings to any UCT students or staff. But if we can, we will be determined in prosecuting the authors,” he said.
He said that despite this, the University would continue tackling transformation issues with renewed focus. – ANA