25 October 2016
Dear colleagues and students
I write to share information on three important matters. I must apologise for the length of the communication, but these issues are most important.
The UCT Senate met yesterday to discuss the crisis situation on campus and passed a resolution.
The meeting was also a forum in which Senate members expressed their anxieties, fears and anger at the milieu of danger, disruption, violence and frustration they find themselves in.
For some, these feelings arise in response to the presence of security personnel and police on campus; the alignment they feel with the cause of students; and the resultant difficulties in creating calm and productive spaces for learning, research and other aspects of university business. There have been allegations of overly aggressive policing too.
Others have been on the receiving end of aggressive harassment and intimidation by protesters – many of whom are our own students. Staff have been locked in their offices; students have been forcibly removed from classrooms; protesters have coerced students who are reluctant to get involved, into joining protests, particularly in the residences; overt threats of arson have been made; workers have been harassed and threatened; academic staff and non-protesting students have been insulted and humiliated; and security personnel have been attacked. In many cases the anxiety is directly related to a concern that the academic year will collapse and the negative effect that will have on students.
I wish to express my sorrow and regret at the extent of the stress and pain that has accompanied the current crisis. This is not befitting of a university, which ought to be a space of rational engagement – robust if necessary, but always civil and respectful.
I believe that an Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) on campus would help us to hear and acknowledge the hurt and anger on all sides. An invitation will be issued for testimony across the board. I hope by this means to open up a space to discuss how to go forward in more mutually respectful and caring ways.
I foresee the IRTC having a broad brief: to consider how protests have been expressed and dealt with; discriminatory and hostile aspects of our institutional culture; gender and harassment issues; and much more. The terms of reference and modus operandi are still to be developed in consultation with stakeholders.
For the present I want to register that I am deeply saddened by the effects of the current crisis on the social fabric of our university. I recognise that not only must we weather the current storm, we will need to work to restore trust and to repair relationships. I see the IRTC as one instrument for this.
Today the High Court granted an interim interdict that is aimed at ensuring that UCT operations are protected and that we can conclude the year and exams. We would have preferred not to have pursued this route, but at this point we have no alternative – the unlawful action by some of the protesters has left us no other option. We are deeply concerned for the safety of staff and students alike (including protesters) and we are extremely worried that the violence and unlawfulness that some protesters are engaging in presents a real risk to life and limb. The interim interdict also prohibits the disruption of exams, libraries, research and other laboratories, and the ability of any of the university's employees to do their work.
The executive has been made aware of several arrests of people participating in protest actions over the last few days. We have also been alerted to ongoing disruption and criminal activity across campus this morning and yesterday, including the burning of four vehicles. We have requested the South African Police Service (SAPS) to give us full details of the arrests made and the charges that will be laid against those arrested. Our understanding at this point, based on provisional information from the SAPS, is that one student was arrested on Monday by the SAPS in connection with allegedly stealing keys from a Jammie Shuttle and interfering with its operation. Another three people (one a UCT student and two cleaning staff from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology [CPUT]) were arrested at CPUT for alleged malicious damage to property. One other UCT student was arrested this morning near College House on UCT's campus for charges related to alleged intimidation of others and public violence. Three more arrests (one student and two non-students) were made in a separate incident when stones were allegedly thrown. The details of all the incidents are being investigated and charges will be formulated and presented to court.
We simply can never support, condone or excuse the disruptive and violent tactics that some of the protesters have adopted. When such unlawful acts are committed, the SAPS must intervene. Their actions too should be governed by the terms of the law.
I want to state clearly that I understand that only some protesters make themselves guilty of unlawful acts. Yet these unlawful actions actually retard the engagement process that may lead us out of the situation we are in because protesters feel that their members and leaders are being targeted and that negotiation is happening in bad faith. I assure you that, as far as we can tell, none of the people arrested have been detained for their leadership of peaceful protests, but rather for allegedly unlawful activity. Such activity not only obliges the university management to escalate security measures, but undermines the engagement process.
I want to conclude with a promise that we are open to listening, hearing and better understanding the anger and frustrations that students and staff feel – both those driving the university shutdown for Fees Must Fall and for decolonisation, and those who have felt intimidated, silenced and insulted throughout those confrontational periods. We are doing our best to protect all members of our community and to preserve the academic project.
Dr Max Price
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