Violence clouds legitimate student issues

17 February 2016 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Roger Sedres.
Violence must fall: The skeleton of a Jammie Shuttle, torched during Tuesday night's campaign of vandalism and intimidation.
Violence must fall: The skeleton of a Jammie Shuttle, torched during Tuesday night's campaign of vandalism and intimidation.

Published: 18h00, 17 February 2016

UCT would always support and protect legitimate, peaceful protest but “drew the line” at criminality and violence on campus, Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price said at a press conference after last night's Rhodes Must Fall campaign of violence, intimidation and vandalism on campus.

Dr Russell Ally was interviewed immediately after the press conference. Watch the video:

Price said UCT had acted “firmly and strongly” by bringing the South African Police Services' Public Order Policing unit onto campus to help UCT security restore control.

The unrest was precipitated by RMF's placement of a shack in Residence Road, to highlight the critical student-housing situation, and what RMF said were race-based allocations in residences.

UCT had formally asked the group to move the shack some 20 to 30m from the middle of the road to alleviate congestion. There were also reports of RMF intimidating staff and students passing by and two charges of assault.

After breaching yesterday's 17h00 deadline, RMF protesters began burning barricades and entering residences, intimidating students, ransacking kitchens and destroying artwork.

Among other casualties were a Jammie Shuttle and a sponsored science research vehicle (which supports PhD and master's students), both torched, as well as heritage paintings and other property.

“A university is a place of debate and discussion and we jealously guard that,” Price said at the conference, held in the Bremner Building, also the target of a petrol bomb when the Vice-Chancellor's office was targeted last night.

In the aftermath, six students were suspended and SAPS arrested eight.

“We hope that students will recognise that this is not an acceptable form of protest and that they will not align themselves with this, also recognising that they put their future at risk; by risking expulsion if they participate in criminal protests.”

The shack was itself was not the issue, Price added, describing it as legitimate protest and an “effective and clever” way of highlighting the over-subscribed student housing situation − an issue management was urgently addressing.

Rather, it was its placement and the safety issues attached that were problematic. (The group had lit cooking fires and quantities of petrol and fire-lighting devices were later found inside the shack.)

Wrong information

Responding to the RMF lobby that black students were not being given housing in residences and that whites were being favoured, Price said they their information was wrong.

“Seventy-five percent of our 6 800 beds are allocated to and currently occupied by black students.”

“Our difficulty in finding accommodation for students has been aggravated by RMF protests because they invaded and shut down our residence offices last week, creating additional complication,” added Price.

Also on the panel to address the media were Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Francis Petersen and Executive Director of the Development and Alumni Department, Dr Russell Ally.

Black lives matter

Ally responded by saying it had been sad day for the university “because we have always believed, and continue to believe, that RMF has raised very critical issues for the university and its transformation imperatives”.

“The RMF's political position is that black lives don't matter [to UCT], which is a very serious challenge to the university. Many of RMF's actions are justified according to this understanding… And that's where the breakdown occurs; the refusal to engage constructively about how we address very real, very legitimate issues.”

Ally said that RMF's actions had discredited the movement and that their methodologies should not detract or discredit the legitimacy of the issues at hand.

“While we're making every effort to ensure there is a safe environment [by] addressing criminality and intimidation, our focus remains firmly on addressing those fundamental challenges of transformation that RMF have raised to demonstrate that black lives do matter...”

During the press conference a small group of students gathered in the foyer of the Bremner Building in a peaceful “lie in” student housing protest. One protester described them as “concerned students” and said they were not aligned to any particular movement.

Quick facts about student housing:

  • UCT has 6 600 beds in residences for a student body, accommodating roughly 25% of its 27 000 students
  • 75% of these beds are currently allocated to black students
  • UCT's residence admissions policy gives preference to students on financial aid, especially first-year students
  • It also gives preference to minors and people who live outside the city
  • Only 125 beds (1.8% of beds) are allocated to Semester Study Abroad students. Most are accommodated privately.

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