Amil Umraw
6 minute read
10 Oct 2016

Staff divided over protests

Amil Umraw

While protests at universities in the province have largely quietened down, staff at various institutions remain divided over the #FeesMustFall campaign.

While protests at universities in the province have largely quietened down, staff at various institutions remain divided over the #FeesMustFall campaign.

Staff and academics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) on Friday stood in solidarity with the #FeesMustFall campaign, peacefully picketing outside the Pietermaritzburg campus.

The group of about 50 staff displayed banners and posters calling for better government funding of higher education, the release of students who have been arrested, and an end to violence on campuses across the country.

Dubbed the “Academics’ National Day of Action”, the small picket was joined by a group of students who sang struggle songs as their lecturers urged passing motorists to hoot in support of their campaign.

However, not all staff shared the same views, with some who spoke to Weekend Witness slating the students’ campaign as “violent” and “destructive”.

Late on Thursday afternoon, a small group of students at the Pietermaritzburg campus attempted to disrupt a lecture at the Students’ Union exam venue by using slingshots to hurl marbles at the building’s glass windows.

Police and private security intervened and the protesters scattered.

Police national commissioner Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane yesterday reaffirmed in a press release that officers would continue to arrest students who break the law.

“Young people are discouraged from making themselves guilty of any offence which will possibly have far-reaching implications on their future and employment opportunities,” Phahlane said.

He said police were investigating information which suggests the #FeesMustFall initiative has been “infiltrated” by others with agendas not aligned with those who seek free education.

“The agenda of those with ulterior motives is to provoke the police to the point where there are fatalities in attempts to create another Marikana.

“This and other information at our disposal is being followed up and those involved will be dealt with accordingly,” Phahlane said.

“The police will continue to exercise maximum restraint and manage the attacks and provocation within the confines of the law.

“We will endeavour to protect lives and property in accordance with our constitutional mandate.”

The Durban University of Technology’s Ayesha Mall, head of the Media, Language and Communication Department, said she was unsure of how sustainable free education would be, but supports the view that government needs to make a “concerted” effort to up tertiary education subsidies.

“Government budgetary cuts are increasingly burdensome for universities and the resultant tuition fee increase is a strain on students,” she said.— WWR.

An administrative officer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus expressed dismay at students using violence to voice their opinions.

The staff member, who would not be named, said she did not mind peaceful protests, but the violence and burning of university property was “totally unacceptable”.

She said staff felt demotivated and disappointed after the protests reached boiling point.

“We cannot concentrate on our work as there are so many uncertainties. We are just taking it one day at a time,” she said, describing an incident when she was forced to flee when protesters began banging on a door to disrupt a meeting.

Since the start of the protests, her workload has doubled as she has to help lecturers reschedule tests and arrange for new venues for the tests to take place. “We understand that fees may be too high for some students, but to behave in this way is totally unacceptable and uncalled for. Staff and non-protesting students are being traumatised, and that is not fair,” she said. — WWR.

University of KwaZulu-Natal theology lecturer Dr Clint le Bruyns said #FeesMustFall is a dream of the nation.

“There are many students, staff and members of the public that have come out and said they are in solidarity with the campaign. It is a noble cause,” Le Bruyns said.

He said campus security had caught wind that some staff were holding public classes to encourage dialogue and debate surrounding #FeesMustFall, and the university had banned the lecturers from using large venues.

“Some of us have challenged students … saying that if you have a cause, you do not do it violently or through intimidation,” Le Bruyns said. “Students want dialogue, but are not allowed to debate in groups at a university because of a court order. This allows rogue elements to come in.”

Le Bruyns said staff were certainly not all on the same page.

“The reason for the division between staff is because they are not engaging with students. Show up to meetings; these are your students. See for yourself what is happening,” he advised lecturers.

“I do not want buildings burning down or security forces with guns walking around. What I fear is that we are going to face very tragic events in the context of this movement as students try to defend themselves and retaliate against these forces.”

— WWR.

A cleaner at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus said she supports the call for free higher education, but the workload of cleaning up the mess after protests is now becoming overwhelming.

The cleaner, who identified herself only as Precious, said she hopes free education becomes a reality because she cannot afford to send her children to university.

“My children did well at school, but I cannot afford to send them here (UKZN). I support the students and I hope there is free education for everyone,” Precious said.

However, having to clean muddied corridors and pick up litter from overthrown garbage bins is becoming tedious.

“Our normal daily cleaning takes a lot of work, but now there is a lot more and it is a bad job. The students are throwing [faeces] everywhere, dropping bins over and dirtying all the classrooms,” Precious said.

“Imagine picking up dirt in one place for one hour and then in one minute it is everywhere again. It’s very annoying.” — WWR.

A security guard employed at the UKZN’s Risk Management Services (RMS) said contending with protesting students is “very hard”.

The guard, who is not authorised to speak to the media, said he had been struck by stones on more than one occasion when confronting protesting students. “It is like fighting a war sometimes. We used to patrol campus and sort out misbehaving students, but now we are really having to fight,” the guard said.

“I am nervous coming to work because you do not know how bad it could get that day. But we have private security now and they do most of the fighting. But there is still lots of tension.”

— WWR.