Message to campus

19 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Campus announcement
19 September 2016

Dear students and colleagues

Thursday and Friday of last week were traumatic for many of us – particularly the confrontational disruptions of classes and tests, the invasion of private spaces, the rudeness and insulting behaviour of some protestors, and the difficulty of cancelling classes and having to reschedule. I want you to know that I understand what you are going through, and empathise with you (the experience is not foreign to me), and I trust that you will support each other.

When protest escalates rapidly, we unfortunately cannot guarantee that you will be able to remain focused on your work and protected from those who disrupt. This is due to a combination of factors affecting the University of Cape Town:

  • We have no access control on this open campus. Many protesters are not UCT students – some are from other campuses; there are farmworkers from Robertson, schoolchildren from Khayelitsha, and others.
  • The lack of access control also means we are generally unable to stop interdicted or suspended students from getting onto campus.
  • We have chosen to have a low-key Campus Protection Service as the norm. Their responsibility and competence is to protect staff, students, visitors and property from crime. They have neither the numbers nor the training to manage crowds. Under normal conditions, maintaining a higher level of security is unnecessary and expensive. And a stronger, more assertive security presence has drawn a strongly critical reaction from many at UCT in the past. Hence our decision to err on the side of low-key security personnel up to this point.
  • Our buildings on campus are very difficult to secure. When attempting to close off a building – whether a residence, library or teaching building – there are inevitably students allied to the protesters already inside. They then trigger the fire alarms, which release all the doors. When alarms go off, officers have to be deployed to confirm that there are no fires and reset the systems, which takes them away from the scene of activity.

There are times when protest is for a widely supported cause, as it was a year ago in support of increased government funding for universities. And, of course, the wider context of the current student action remains the issue of fees. But this current series of protests is focused more immediately on the fate of five students who have been found by tribunals and courts to have contravened the law. Two of the five have been expelled but are appealing their sentence. The other three were in a tribunal held on Thursday last week and the outcome is expected shortly. Three of the five are also interdicted by a court from coming onto campus.

You may be wondering why two of the interdicted students are on campus in the first place. Each time an interdict is breached, we have reported it to the SA Police Service, who have the authority and responsibility to enforce it. But, up to now, they have chosen not to act – except to open another charge against the interdicted students, which then has to be heard in court.

From our perspective, the right to protest has been upheld throughout the last 18 months, without any disciplinary action against protesters other than when they have threatened the safety of others and our premises.

Most of you, I am sure, are rightly angry that the academic programme appears to have been sacrificed further by the decision to suspend classes on Monday 19 September 2016. I need to explain the factors that determined this decision in some detail, especially since I had said in Senate on Friday that after suspending lectures that afternoon, we would be back to normal on Monday. The decision was taken by the Executive in consultation with a range of stakeholders – deans, the Students' Representative Council, union executive members, wardens, individual academics and the Senior Leadership Group.

The reasons for the decision are threefold – the heightened tensions of the day, the assessment of our ability to contain disruptions, and the value of a day to develop a plan of action.


Heightened tensions

First, we anticipate that the day is one which will draw many protests and reactions across the wider student body in view of Minister Blade Nzimande's planned announcement on fees for 2017, which happened at 11:00 today. (We were informed of this on the weekend.) The student movements countrywide have given notice that they plan to mobilise if there is not an evident commitment to free education.

Second, we anticipate that the Student Disciplinary Tribunal will release its findings on the three students who were on trial for arson, assault and other serious offences arising from the February protests. This has been the principal focus of the recent protests and the rallying cry of the groups who recently occupied the Steve Biko Students Union Building.

There is also, of course, the national ferment in student politics – with campuses burning and closed, occupations (such as of the Stellenbosch University library), and some common causes, which include Fees Must Fall, insourcing and campaigns to challenge the interdicts against students.


Intelligence on the scale of disruptions

We are convinced that the disruptions of Thursday and Friday will be repeated throughout today. We know that students from other universities and various other people have been urged to join to make UCT the focal point for the initial protests, which, if successful, will be expanded to other university campuses nationwide. There have been threats of arson attacks that we are taking seriously. There is an explicit plan to occupy the library and possibly branch libraries.

We have decided, for now, not to escalate private security to the level required to contain classroom and building disruptions, which requires a significantly heavier, hands-on security presence. This would be at a level we have not initiated in the past and which we believe may make many people uncomfortable. We may get there, but we do not want to step up to that level until absolutely necessary.

In view of the near certainty of disruption today, we believe it is better to avoid the inevitable distress to staff and students who may be involved with tests or studying.


Opportunity to reduce the tensions at source and develop a plan of action

The question everyone will ask is what will be different on Tuesday. Of course, there are no guarantees.

First, the mood of the protest might shift following the ministerial announcement on fees for 2017, as in my opinion it satisfies the key need to keep unchanged the costs faced by students from a household with an income of less than R600 000 per annum.

Second, the extra day gives us an opportunity to make overtures to a group of students occupying the Steve Biko student building, which might reduce the scale of protest. We are writing to them in response to their statement of demands with an invitation to meet.

Third, we can assess whether we need to increase security, particularly if it involves the kind of security we will need if we are to keep the campus open for the rest of the week.

Fourth, we are encouraging faculties to organise events during the week through which students and staff can be brought together to discuss and address issues that have been raised in the last 18 months. We share the goals of high quality, affordable education. Students would not choose to delay their exams or miss classes if they did not feel deeply about the issues they are raising.

As is often the case, there are many on campus who do not want to speak out publicly, but nevertheless have views that I am keen to hear. I invite you to share your views at vc@uct.ac.za. Please understand that I may not be able to respond to each email personally.

Sincerely,

Dr Max Price
Vice-Chancellor


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