10 November 2016
Dear colleagues and students
You have likely taken note of the agreement reached between the UCT executive and the 'Progressive' SRC Candidates / Shackville TRC on Sunday, 6 November. A set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) has been compiled for your convenience, which will be updated on the web on a continual basis. This VC Desk is an attempt to explain aspects of the agreement which have been misrepresented in the public discourse, especially in social media. It also aims to explain the reasons motivating key sections of the agreement.
What we face
We face a crisis situation as a university community and as a country. While the protests that started in September were sparked by specific issues targeted by a coalition of 17 SRC candidates calling themselves “Shackville TRC”, once triggered, the protests became a vehicle for the expression of pent-up anger, alienation and frustration, particularly among black students. This anger and frustration is born of the deep divisions and inequalities in our society generally, as well as what many at UCT experience as a colonial institutional culture. National leadership failures, within a milieu of political dissension, conflict and corruption, have surely fed into the mix – as has the jockeying for primacy among various student movements, both locally and nationally. These protests have played out on campuses around the country, often becoming hostile, personalised and even violent. In reaction, campuses have been subjected to extraordinary security measures, including sometimes large police and private-security presences, which have themselves unsettled and sometimes harmed students and staff. All this has left our university communities polarised, uncertain and unhappy. The UCT community, too, is damaged.
What do we hope for from the agreement?
The recently signed agreement with protest leaders arose from the immediate crisis of forestalling threats to disrupt exams and the upcoming academic year – the consequences of which I surely don't need to repeat. First, signing the agreement may enable us to complete the 2016 academic year. I trust that students will be able to prepare for and sit exams without disruption. Some security will remain as the risk is not completely removed. There are still calls, both locally and nationally, for a national university shutdown as the only way to pressure government to heed the call for free education. But we hope, as engagement strengthens and assuming that there is no disruption, the need for security will diminish even further. Second, the agreement will allow us to take a small but significant step in the right direction of addressing the underlying issues that have fuelled the protests for the last 18 months. It adopts approaches and interventions that we hope will heal and unify, and build a sustainable foundation for a more cohesive campus community.
I have been asked countless times: “How will it be different next year when we try to hold classes again? Will we be under a permanent state of emergency with security everywhere?”
The agreement lays the basis for greater confidence in our ability to engage and transform at the same time as continuing with the regular academic programme in a peaceful environment. There are, of course, no guarantees, and everyone on all sides will have to work selflessly and with the bigger picture in mind to make it work.
The IRTC / Shackville TRC
The Senior Leadership Group believes that the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) / Shackville Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a useful strategy in moving forward. In the negotiations with the protest leaders / SRC Candidates, we have agreed on a potential list of commissioners, some of whom have already indicated their willingness to serve on this commission. With the agreement in place, we can now begin this work.
The agreement speaks to what the IRTC / Shackville TRC will hope to do but acknowledges that the scope and modus operandi have not yet been resolved. The commissioners themselves will immediately begin consulting with all parties expressing an interest to determine the terms of reference. I urge you all to contribute to this process – individually and in your various constituencies.
I want to highlight two major components of the IRTC's work. The first relates to the limits of acceptable protest and the way the university executive has handled the protests, including disciplinary processes, interdicts and possible amnesties. Many individuals have been traumatised by the recent protests and/or have felt silenced and disrespected – whether by protesters, security personnel or those in authority. These protest-related experiences should be shared in the IRTC. I hope we will address and begin to heal the polarisation.
The second is to assist UCT in addressing the underlying issues of institutional culture (including race, gender, sexuality and disability), transformation, decolonisation, discrimination and any other matters that the university community – including staff and students who hold different views from those supporting the protests – have raised over the past 18 months, or may wish to raise.
The agreement commits us further to ensuring that the university community engages seriously with the ideas of decoloniality, particularly with respect to the institutional culture and curricula.
The facts around clemency and amnesty
First let me give the facts. We have agreed to clemency, not amnesty, for 12 students who were involved in protest-related activities in February 2016 (during “Shackville”). These students were all brought before the UCT Student Disciplinary Tribunal, found guilty and sanctioned, which included some rustications and some expulsions.
The conditions and terms of the clemency are as follows:
What is the difference between clemency and amnesty?
Granting clemency can be understood as an act of mercy or forgiveness to someone who has already been convicted of an offence. It is tantamount to commuting a sentence already passed. In clemency, the charge and guilty finding remains on the student's record, but the sanction is more lenient or, as is the case here, conditionally suspended. Clemency can therefore be revoked.
Granting amnesty, on the other hand, involves expunging the guilty finding and sentence from the student's record and cannot subsequently be revoked. Amnesty generally forms part of a restorative justice process in circumstances where reconciliation is a key objective. Amnesties need to be the outcome of a process of independent review against criteria. In South Africa's case this was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; in UCT's case this will be the IRTC / Shackville TRC.
The IRTC / Shackville TRC will assess the individual's actions and context and determine whether the seriousness of the actions, the proportionality to the context, motivation and other factors justify granting amnesty.
At this point, only clemency is available to those students who apply for it and who sign the required declaration of remorse. They are likely, however, to apply to the IRTC in due course, which may finally result in amnesty being granted, but that is for the independent commissioners to decide.
Other outstanding disciplinary charges for protest-related acts
The call by the protesting students is for amnesties (within the IRTC process) to be extended to unlawful protest activities in the current period, including charges that may be laid internally and externally. Their argument is firstly driven by the desire that these protest activities should also be viewed in the spirit of restorative justice, and secondly by a questioning of the fairness of the UCT student disciplinary processes. We have neither agreed that there should be amnesties for these charges nor that they should be withdrawn. What we have agreed is that we will not proceed with the Student Disciplinary Tribunals for these cases for now, but will rather refer them to the IRTC. The IRTC will decide either to adjudicate directly and determine appropriate sanctions within the framework of restorative justice, or it will make recommendations of how the cases should be dealt with (eg referring them to the Student Disciplinary Tribunal for adjudication before considering amnesties).
Note that if a particular student faces charges unrelated to this year's protests, clemency will not apply to those charges, nor will the incomplete cases be referred to the IRTC. The student will face those charges in the normal way.
The reasons why we agreed to the consideration of clemency and amnesty as part of the agreement
First, both clemency and amnesty are instruments of restorative justice, which we affirm as one component of reconciliation and healing in a highly polarised society. It will be much harder to achieve reconciliation and healing when leaders of the groups with whom one wants to engage are expelled or are currently on trial in the Student Disciplinary Tribunal processes. We believe that this is also a key to unlocking further engagement, which is pivotal if we are to reach solutions together.
Second, there are also compelling pragmatic and consequentialist considerations. This takes into account the prevailing context of student protest at UCT and nationally. The executive had to take serious stock of the risks we face as an institution. Prior to the agreement the situation was indeed dire. We have overcome much, but the prospect of not completing the exams remained a serious threat. Security measures can only do so much. We made the agreement, including the granting of clemency, to lessen this risk, to give thousands of students an opportunity to complete the exams, to unlock the potential of the IRTC, to hopefully remove the need for ongoing security on our campuses, and to restore a calm environment for teaching and learning.
On fees and funding higher education
The agreement acknowledges that there will be competing views and solutions regarding the funding of higher education and that the university may not settle on a single consensus position. It goes on to state that the executive supports the long-term ideal of free higher education but that the implementation, coverage, sustainability and macro-economic factors need investigation to develop a coherent policy for the medium term. The process for such policy development is both through a research programme and unit, as well as multi-stakeholder workshops. The issue of fees is a national one and we commit to lobbying at national level.
On affordability and financial exclusions
The agreement commits us to campaigning for a national policy to be finalised in 2017 that will bring down the cost of higher education for the missing-middle group. Further, the executive commits to the principle that, as far as possible, students in financial need who are academically eligible to graduate or to progress to the next academic year of study should not be prevented from doing so. Furthermore, if there are degrees that have been withheld due to unpaid fees, these will be released on the basis of agreeing to a payment plan.
On completing the academic year successfully
The agreement commits the protesters to allowing the exams and university activities to proceed without interruption. It commits the executive to a full deferred exam programme in January 2017, including, but not limited to, structured classroom teaching in mini-semesters and consolidation sessions with the available lecturers and tutors where possible. All students (including those who opt to defer) must be given the best possible chance to succeed.
I have previously expressed that I believe the protest action has deeply affected many (on all sides). I appreciate that in terms of the agreement many will be sceptical, angry or disappointed with the concessions made. I hope that many more are pleased.
Whatever your view, please consider the deeper intention and reasoning behind the engagement and the agreement, namely to find sustainable solutions to the issues we face.
Ongoing interdicts, suspensions, expulsions, arrests, the use of private security and police action do not offer a final solution. Forfeiting the academic project in 2016 and perhaps 2017 would be utterly devastating.
Our best chance for success will come when individuals on all sides commit to ongoing engagement, to deep and respectful listening, and to making an effort to understand views that may not be similar to what we are comfortable with. We should – from all sides – renounce the temptations of racialised vitriol and rhetorical simplifications. We have to be open to changing our minds even about things we have always felt so sure about – based on reason and understanding of the other's perspective. This is what a university environment is about.
Let's all demonstrate that openness and work to find each other.
Dr Max Price
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