16 February 2017
Dear colleagues and students
Exactly a year ago (on 15 and 16 February 2016) the University of Cape Town community experienced what we now commonly refer to as the Shackville protests.
Many divergent views exist about the protests, what led to them, what occurred, what transpired afterwards, and their deeper meaning. The incident will probably attract scrutiny and analysis for years to come. The planned Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) will no doubt delve deeper into these issues.
What everyone would probably agree on is that the incident affected all in our community deeply in one way or another. For some there was deep trauma and this must be recognised. We faced further disruptions following the Shackville protests. These impacted our work and our community extensively. Later in the year we faced the national #FeesMustFall protests that had a further and significant impact on our year. It also needs to be recognised that in some cases individuals (staff, protesters, security personnel, non-protesting students) are alleged to have acted unlawfully or violently. We have condemned such behaviour. These elements must be ? and are being ? unpacked and must serve to change us for the better as a community. We should also acknowledge the fact that the Shackville protests raised incredibly important issues (from all sorts of perspectives) which challenge us all to work towards making a positive difference and improving our institution.
UCT has over the last year ? and in part as a result of the Shackville protests ? attempted to begin to deal more urgently with many of the complexities our students in particular are presented with. The lived realities of many of our students are a struggle against deep-seated poverty and inequality in society. This work has seen many stakeholders rally to face these challenges (including the executive, deans, students, staff and many others in the UCT community). Despite differences in opinion, outlook and experiences, many across campus have worked together to tackle the enormous challenges facing our students, our institution and higher education. This commitment is encouraging and speaks to the real character of the diverse body of people that make up UCT.
This extraordinary work culminated in thousands of students completing exams (in December 2016, and at the beginning of this year) despite the complexities. It further brought an additional and sharpened focus to the issues that many of our students face with regard to accommodation, fees, funding and the questions around the principle, potential and probabilities of fee-free higher education. It also highlights the need to engage government on these issues and to address the climate on campus; structural racism; LGBTIQ+ matters; gender and sexual violence issues, to name but a few. The work continues.
Last year we also recognised that a restorative justice approach was needed to deal with the aftermath of the protests and to map a way forward. This led to the establishment of the multi-stakeholder steering committee that will oversee the work of the IRTC. Supported by student representatives and the executive leadership, it will provide a framework for finding solutions to the longer-term challenges we face. We hope this process will lead to a new, inclusive identity in a transformed, decolonised university. The IRTC steering committee?s first meeting took place on 26 January to plan for the year and appoint external commissioners. Members of the community will soon be invited to send their nomination to Council for five commissioners who will serve on the IRTC. This is important progress.
So, one year after the Shackville protests we as the UCT executive reaffirm our commitment to listen to and engage with students and staff, as well as address the social justice issues that affect us all. We reaffirm our commitment to respect the dignity of all staff and students and to uphold their right to a safe and productive environment. Robust debate, lawful protest and tackling the social ills in society is ? and will remain ? part and parcel of our inherent fibre.
Whatever this year may have in store for us, as a community it is important to appreciate what we have learnt from the Shackville protests. A year later, we have much of which to be proud. We thank those who are working tirelessly to rectify and improve on the issues where we have fallen short. Our collective action will stand us in good stead as we continue to face these complexities together. In the final analysis, all of our effort must be aimed at strengthening and improving our institution for all of us.
Professor Francis Petersen
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