As many of you are already aware, South African tertiary institutions are at a crisis. Most have been closed for about three weeks now, severely interrupting normal academic activities. As a postgraduate student, I have not been as affected as the undergraduates since I do not have lectures or exams. However, I have been affected by the climate on campus and it is my experiences that I would like to share.
There are dire warnings about the future state of tertiary education in South Africa if the universities do not reopen within the next few days. I do not believe that university management would resort to melodrama for its own sake, so we are at a junction with a choice between completing the normal academic year or jumping off a cliff. This is not the first time tertiary education has been disrupted. Last year, the #RhodesMustFall movement took umbrage at a decades old statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), culminating in its removal. Near the end of last year, exams were delayed due to protest action, this time around the issue of fee increments. This ended when the government implemented a 0% fee increase for 2016. At the start of the 2016 academic year, there was protest around student housing (under the Twitter handle of #Shackville as an attempt to compare residence over-allocation with informal settlements) which resulted in the burning of residence artworks. Due to this fiasco, five student leaders were interdicted by UCT university management, with two currently expelled. Approximately three weeks ago, the #FeesMustFall movement, which was set up last year, started protesting and disrupting university life (by blockading the entrances) over the issue of university fees for poor students. There is also a #BringBackOurCadres movement which is protesting against the disciplinary actions UCT management has taken against the six interdicted students, and is demanding instead a Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) type council for the violent events which occurred during #Shackville.
So that is the short and curly of it. While there are important issues around access to university education (which goes beyond simply being able to afford it), the manner at which the protest has been conducted has not been at all pleasant. Those for the movement have convinced themselves, and try to convince others, that disruption is the only way for their voices to be heard. This involves, as of the week before last, setting off fire alarms and chasing students who are studying out of the building, forcing staff out of their offices, and blocking the university entrances and preventing the Jammie shuttles from running. When the university attempted to open last week, protesters were stopped from blocking university entrances by private security but they obviously could not be stopped from roaming around campus and disrupting lectures. Protesters have also taken a shine to the Steve Biko building, replacing Bremner building as their (head)quarters.
Since we are located in a quieter part of campus, I thankfully have not had to experience a confrontation. I did see that the protesters used a fire-extinguisher to stop a lecture; at first we thought that they had set a fire, which was not unfeasible considering fires had been lit the night before around campus. Our current Honours students also had to hide themselves in our lab one day as the protesters set off the building’s fire alarm and were banging on the door for them to come out.
The university is still shut tomorrow. We all hope that the situation is resolved soon. University management around the country is attempting to find resolutions, although whether the protesters will be sufficiently satisfied this time around is anyone’s guess.