Campus Update

16 February 2016 | Professor Francis Petersen

Dear colleagues and students

I write today to give you an update on some of the work of the Special Executive Task Team in relation to the accommodation issues we are currently facing, the ongoing issues related to the behavior of certain Rhodes Must Fall members and our actions in this regard. There are a number of inaccuracies and distortions circulating on social media. Here are the facts:

Accommodation shortage

Every year we face a period of uncertainty while we wait to see how many of the students who have received residence offers actually take up the offer. Once we see how many vacancies we have, we can fill these from the waiting lists. We only have 6 680 beds for 27 000 students, so it is always the case that only one in four will be accommodated in the residence system.

This year we have faced a much greater than usual shortfall in residence spaces as a direct result of a drastic increase in three drivers of demand.

  • Firstly, the number of first years accepting offers has increased (perhaps as a result of the expectations created nationally of better financial aid and lower fees);
  • Secondly, students completing deferred exams needed beds while awaiting decisions related to financial aid (the government's recent allocations to assist students with outstanding debt) and academic exclusion or readmission which are much later than usual due to the deferred exams; and
  • Thirdly, the clearance of historic debt has increased the number of returning students. Furthermore, the invasion and occupation by RMF members of the three buildings occupied by Student Housing administration compounded the issues and delayed our ability to respond effectively as several of these offices had to the closed for a number of days.

We have now placed the majority of the students affected in residences, temporary accommodation or in private accommodation, though there are still a small number of students who are in transit accommodation. This is out of a total of about 6 600 who have been placed in our residences and another 2 484 (approximately 1 400 more than last year) through our Off-Campus Student Accommodation office. The Department of Student Affairs staff will continue to pursue each outstanding case and will work closely with the Student Representative Council to support students.

We thank students affected by this accommodation crisis for their patience and we are especially grateful to staff of Student Housing and Residence Life and the DSA as well as the SRC for their commitment in supporting the students under enormously stressful conditions.

Finally, on residence allocations, I want to emphasize that RMF is trying to turn the housing problems into a racial issue. They argue that it is white students, foreign students and those who are wealthy enough to live outside that have been given preference while the poorest black students are excluded from the residences. This is simply not true. 2015's figures show that over 75% of students in residence were black; and the indications are that the percentage is expected to be higher this year.

Engaging with RMF

The task team has spent a significant amount of time over the last few weeks attempting to engage with RMF.

On 4 February I wrote to the campus community to explain that RMF had occupied Avenue House and interfered with operations, bringing some offices to a standstill. We demanded that they leave Avenue House and they should give us an undertaking to refrain from occupying it again and from interfering with UCT staff or operations. RMF responded with a list of demands. They subsequently interfered with operations in the Masingene and Cadbol buildings. The executive refused to entertain their demands until we had a commitment from RMF that they will not interfere with UCT operations or staff. To this date we have not received such a commitment.

Simultaneously we faced a situation where we needed to deal with RMF's ongoing presence in Avenue Hall. In an attempt to deal with this particular matter we invited them to meet us to discuss Avenue Hall and the option of alternative space.

We communicated with them on 4 February, 11 February, 12 February and 14 February. In response RMF has refused all engagements and persisted with their refusal to meet whilst publicly insulting Task Team members and damning the executive for not engaging. (See correspondence here). Their complete lack of respect, intimidation of others, demeaning utterances, and distortion of facts does not speak of a movement that is accountable and disciplined. The executive has therefore been left with no option but to take legal measures to remove RMF from Avenue Hall.

Disruptions and vandalism

Yesterday, we saw RMF erecting a shack in the middle of Residence Road in protest about accommodation issues. Several refuse bins were set alight and the traffic came to a standstill. Red spray paint was also used to vandalize statues in Fuller and Smuts Hall residences. We reiterate that protest action is a constitutional right and we will protect that right. However, interfering with UCT traffic, vandalism and creating safety and health issues are not a right. Where this occurs, we are left with no choice but to lay charges against RMF members. We have received several complaints from people who claim RMF members have restricted their movement, prevented them from walking where they wanted to, insulted and manhandled them. This is now being investigated.

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed instances were a group of people (students and members of the public) under the RMF banner entered dining halls in residences without permission, taking food prepared for others and intimidating UCT staff. Again, in these instances charges have been brought.

There has been a campus announcement recently in relation to a person who wore a t-shirt with the words: “Kill all whites” in a residence. We have informed the person (not a student but a member of RMF) that we have laid charges against him with the South African Police Services for hate speech and inciting public violence, invading a residence hall without permission, removing food without permission, intimidating UCT staff, and interfering with UCT operations. The person was also instructed on the weekend to leave UCT campus and not to enter it again. Yesterday morning the person participated in the shack building. An additional charge of trespassing has now been added to the charges that he will face.

We will not act against protesters who exercise their constitutional right to protest. However, we cannot condone criminal acts, intimidation and the violation of the rights of others. RMF members have a choice to make. Engage in acceptable, lawful protest action or face disciplinary action when you engage in intimidation and criminality.

Professor Francis Petersen
Chair of the Special Executive Task Team

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