Update on recent events, Thursday 20 October 2016

20 October 2016 | Story by Newsroom

20 October 2016

Dear colleagues and students

I want to update the campus on plans for today and the developments from yesterday in the context of yesterday's attempts at concluding negotiations with the protesting students.

Raised level of security

Regrettably, we are having to increase the presence and visibility of private security, the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Public Order Police (POP) from this morning, Thursday, 20 October.

This follows mounting aggression, vandalism and violence from the protesters:

  • Yesterday, two security guards were brutally attacked. One was beaten up by a group of protesters near the food court on upper campus (many of you will have seen the video footage). The other had a rock dropped on his head from an upper storey of the Steve Biko Student's Union building. It is reported that he is in hospital in a serious condition. The SAPS are investigating charges of assault with the intention of doing grievous bodily harm.
  • The day also saw the invasion of numerous buildings by groups of protesters; the intimidation of staff, who in many instances were forced out of their offices; fire alarms being triggered; and entrances blocked. The disruption in the New Engineering Building involved the threat of arson, with the protesters making it known that they were well aware of the dangerous chemicals contained in the labs there.
  • Workers were forced to leave residences and several bus drivers were threatened, resulting in many downing tools due to concerns for their safety.
  • There have also been observed and recorded incidents of excessive force, abuse or unprovoked harassment by security officers. We condemn this if and when it occurs and will investigate reported cases accordingly. But it is entirely inappropriate for students to take matters into their own hands against such excesses.

The POP and the SAPS remain thinly spread over other volatile Western Cape campuses and other trouble hotspots, which means that the level of support they can provide at UCT right now is insufficient to meet our security needs. For this reason, we have to rely more heavily on private security with backup from the SAPS and the POP.

I have authorised both the POP and private security to increase their presence, visibility and level of patrolling (with personnel protection vehicles) and, where necessary, to use personal-protection and crowd-dispersal equipment.

We have urged all security personnel to be as restrained as possible under the circumstances. If anyone witnesses or experiences any abuses at the hands of security officers, this should be reported.

I realise that this is a very uncomfortable and awkward scenario for many on campus. However, I am also mindful of the many emails and other communications to me and my colleagues from staff and students who are calling for greater security, and who have had difficult and sometimes traumatic encounters with protesters without adequate protection from security personnel or police.

I don't need to remind you that these are not normal conditions or times. I urge staff and students to avoid conflict and provocation as far as possible, be it with protesters or with security, and to avoid becoming bystanders at sites of protest or conflict. These situations can escalate rapidly and the SAPS and security can often not distinguish protesters from peaceful bystanders, for example when dispersing a crowd.

Finally, we know that there are considerable numbers of protesters from outside UCT joining the disruptive activities. To make it easier for security to identify who might not be bona fide UCT members, I urge all students and staff to wear their ID cards around their necks.

Report on Wednesday, 19 October, engagement with protesting students

As I indicated in my VC Desk of Tuesday, 18 October, my door remains open to the prospect of negotiations.

On Wednesday, 19 October, in the early morning, the executive was approached by representatives of the SRC Candidates with a prospect of signing an agreement the same day. The agreement included returning to full classes from today, 20 October, if we could meet a number of preconditions for re-engaging the negotiations. (The negotiations have been stalled since Saturday, 15 October, when we announced that the university would open for blended learning on Monday, 17 October.) The SRC Candidates recognised that we were close to a negotiated agreement, the elements of which were shared in the VC Desk of Tuesday, 18 October.

The request to re-engage was impassioned and we felt that there was a renewed appreciation of the urgency of, and commitment to, getting back to class. The request came out of a plenary the night before, which had been observed by some non-student neutral parties, who urged us to take the opportunity seriously.

In the event, the discussions only got started at 17:00 and it then became clear that the negotiating team would still need to go back to get a mandate from their plenary. By midnight no answer was received – one can only presume that the plenary was unresolved.

I regret that my team and I misjudged the probability of a dramatic conclusion if we sacrificed another day. We are now back on course with the original plan and with the heightened security needed to safeguard staff, students, libraries and facilities.

I trust that the day will go smoothly and, of course, if student protesters wish to get back to full classes, we are keen to do so, but any engagement will have to be negotiated in parallel with continuing academic activities.


Dr Max Price

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