Activists share ideas on a way forward amid COVID-19

26 May 2020 | Story Kim Cloete. Photo Adobe Stock. Read time 8 min.
Attendees of the online joint special session of the UCT Transformation Forum and University Social Responsiveness Committee reflected on COVID-19 and the way forward.
Attendees of the online joint special session of the UCT Transformation Forum and University Social Responsiveness Committee reflected on COVID-19 and the way forward.

Activists, students, academics, and gender and protection specialists from the United Nations gathered in an online forum to share ideas on the way forward as the effects of COVID-19 expose a widening gulf of inequality among many students and the communities in which they live.

The online joint special session of the University of Cape Town (UCT) Transformation Forum and University Social Responsiveness Committee, on 22 May 2020, reflected on COVID-19 in relation to race, class, gender and access to basic resources such as water, food, shelter and safety.

Describing the situation in local communities on the Cape Flats, postgraduate student in disability studies, and human rights activist with the Bishop Lavis Action Committee Abdul Karriem Matthews said the “much-promised” food parcels from government had not arrived. He said gang warfare in Bishop Lavis, where unemployment stands at 70%, was continuing and the voices of the community and the working class were not being heard.


“If people have a choice between buying a mask or a loaf of bread, they’ll buy the bread.”

He called for the academic programme from early childhood development to primary, high school and university level to be shut down with immediate effect for 2020 as the government could not give a guarantee of social distancing.

Matthews said it was too risky for children to go to school, as there were up to 40 or even 60 learners in a class and unemployed people in embattled areas could not afford to buy masks.

“If people have a choice between buying a mask or a loaf of bread, they’ll buy the bread. A mask comes way down in the list of human needs.”

Inequality in online learning

Activist Mocke J van Veuren of the C19 People’s Coalition called for a social pedagogy approach to higher education during COVID-19, which he said should be consultative, inclusive and sensitive to the contexts of students, teachers and their communities.

The C19 Post Education Working Group of the People’s Coalition is calling for a halt to the formal online curriculum roll-out; academic, financial and accommodation protection for students; as well as labour protection for teaching staff.

“There’s a massive divide between students who are able to cope with online learning and students in situations where learning is untenable. Going online immediately will simply widen existing inequalities and make meaningful learning impossible for the vast majority of students,” Van Veuren said in his presentation.

He called for a phased roll-out of a supportive and structured, but flexible, learning process and a return to campus-based teaching when it is deemed safe.

The harsh reality of poverty

UCT Students’ Representative Council (SRC) president, Akha Tutu, acknowledged that UCT had loaned laptops to many students and arranged free data, but that online learning raised some concerns.

“Not everyone will benefit from the loan of laptops and provision of data. For a student who lives in a shack with eight people 24 hours a day, a laptop won’t help because how and when are you going to work in that kind of situation?”

He said COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the reality of poverty and inequality. “This time of COVID-19 has proved even more glaringly that poverty is the biggest problem in South Africa.”

Residences seen as a safety net

He said the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of residences at universities. He welcomed UCT’s plans for a phased return of vulnerable students currently living in shacks and deep rural areas.

“Students when they are at res, are in a safety net. They’re in a good space in terms of being taken care of. They are in a comfortable space, a safe place where they can get food and a quiet place to learn.”

He said the SRC was maintaining contact with UCT management during COVID-19.

“Our primary role is to make sure we are in contact with the university management so that we are a conduit for students. We want to make sure that complaints and concerns from students reach management’s ears. We disagree with management where we see fit and bring alternative ways of doing things. We want to ensure that students are not left behind in any way.”

Bearing the brunt of COVID-19

Sketching an overall picture of COVID-19 in South Africa, Matthew du Plessis, a senior legal officer in the Western Cape office of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said the effect of the lockdown on a country such as South Africa was disproportionate in relation to other countries around the world.

“Whenever a sacrifice is made, it affects us more in African countries. We will bear the brunt a lot harder. That is why transformation and inequality are so important to focus on.”

Du Plessis focused most of his address on the increasing number of complaints about heavy-handed treatment by some members of the South African National Defence Force and police during the lockdown. He said a SAHRC poll had shown that trust in the military had decreased since soldiers had been deployed to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, and citizens could register complaints of mistreatment through the SAHRC website and offices in various provinces.

Gender-based violence

Justine van Rooyen, gender advisor to the World Food Programme (WFP), said the WFP had focused on mobilising resources to provide food assistance to around 100 million people worldwide in 2020, but that an additional 130 million people risked slipping into hunger this year due to COVID-19. The WFP was increasing its efforts to provide food to needy people around the world. Van Rooyen also raised alarm bells about the potential increase in gender-based violence (GBV) during this time. She said a call centre, Lifeline, had reported that calls about GBV had increased by 500% since the lockdown in South Africa.

“Restriction of movement, a reduction in community interaction and closure of businesses and services are not only increasing GBV-related risks and violence against women and girls, but also limiting the ability of survivors to distance themselves from their abusers and access external support.”

Van Rooyen said previous coping mechanisms, such as retreating to a neighbour or family member, were often no longer viable options for women.

Shared solutions

UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, Professor Loretta Feris, welcomed the views of all the panelists, as well as questions and comments on the online forum.

“It is important that we as executives remain open to people providing suggestions and possible solutions,” said Feris.

She spoke of the current situation where UCT had to come up with new ways of teaching and learning.


“We need to work together on solutions.”

“We are very aware that online learning is an imperfect solution in what is an immensely challenging time during COVID-19. It is like trying to fix a vessel while we are in a storm on the ocean.”

Ferris said UCT was doing its best in a tough situation and called on people to work together to carve a way forward.

“We are aware of the deepening inequities in the system while trying to address a way of learning to see students through COVID-19. We need to work together on solutions.”

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 updates

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March 2020 and to implement a national lockdown from 26 March.

UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information. Please note that the information on this page is subject to change depending on current lockdown regulations.

Frequently asked questions


Daily updates

Friday, 5 February 14:20, 5 February 2021
Monday, 4 January 16:50, 4 January 2021
Friday, 18 December 11:30, 18 December 2020
Thursday, 19 November 09:30, 19 November 2020
Friday, 13 November 12:40, 13 November 2020
Friday, 16 October 10:05, 16 October 2020
Wednesday, 14 October 12:50, 14 October 2020
Tuesday, 22 September 14:10, 22 September 2020
Friday, 11 September 10:05, 11 September 2020
Monday, 31 August 12:20, 31 August 2020
Wednesday, 12 August 10:20, 12 August 2020
Friday, 7 August 11:24, 7 August 2020
Thursday, 6 August 18:26, 6 August 2020
Monday, 27 July 14:00, 27 July 2020
Wednesday, 15 July 09:30, 15 July 2020
Monday, 13 July 14:25, 13 July 2020
Monday, 6 July 16:20, 6 July 2020
Thursday, 25 June 10:15, 25 June 2020
Tuesday, 23 June 12:30, 23 June 2020
Thursday, 18 June 17:35, 18 June 2020
Wednesday, 17 June 10:45, 17 June 2020
Tuesday, 2 June 12:20, 2 June 2020
Friday, 29 May 09:25, 29 May 2020
Monday, 25 May 14:00, 25 May 2020
Thursday, 21 May 12:00, 21 May 2020
Wednesday, 6 May 10:00, 6 May 2020
Tuesday, 5 May 17:05, 5 May 2020
Thursday, 30 April 17:10, 30 April 2020
Tuesday, 28 April 10:30, 28 April 2020
Friday, 24 April 09:35, 24 April 2020
Thursday, 23 April 17:00, 23 April 2020
Wednesday, 22 April 14:25, 22 April 2020
Monday, 20 April 17:45, 20 April 2020
Friday, 17 April 12:30, 17 April 2020
Thursday, 16 April 09:45, 16 April 2020
Tuesday, 14 April 11:30, 14 April 2020
Thursday, 9 April 09:00, 9 April 2020
Wednesday, 8 April 15:40, 8 April 2020
Wednesday, 1 April 15:50, 1 April 2020
Friday, 27 March 11:40, 27 March 2020
Thursday, 26 March 18:30, 26 March 2020
Tuesday, 24 March 15:40, 24 March 2020
Monday, 23 March 15:40, 23 March 2020
Friday, 20 March 16:00, 20 March 2020
Thursday, 19 March 09:15, 19 March 2020
Wednesday, 18 March 16:00, 18 March 2020
Tuesday, 17 March 12:50, 17 March 2020
Monday, 16 March 17:15, 16 March 2020

Campus communications


New SRC and other updates 16:44, 4 November 2020
Virtual graduation ceremonies 13:30, 21 October 2020
Online staff assembly and other updates 15:09, 30 September 2020
Fee adjustments and other updates 15:21, 16 September 2020
Call for proposals: TLC2020 10:15, 26 August 2020
SAULM survey and other updates 15:30, 5 August 2020
COVID-19 cases and other updates 15:26, 5 August 2020
New UCT Council and other updates 15:12, 15 July 2020
Upcoming UCT virtual events 09:30, 15 July 2020
Pre-paid data for UCT students 14:25, 22 April 2020
Update for postgraduate students 12:55, 20 April 2020
UCT Human Resources and COVID-19 16:05, 19 March 2020
UCT confirms second COVID-19 case 09:15, 19 March 2020
Update on UCT COVID-19 response 13:50, 11 March 2020
Update on COVID-19 17:37, 6 March 2020


Video messages from the Department of Medicine

Getting credible, evidence-based, accessible information and recommendations relating to COVID-19

The Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, are producing educational video material for use on digital platforms and in multiple languages. The information contained in these videos is authenticated and endorsed by the team of experts based in the Department of Medicine. Many of the recommendations are based on current best evidence and are aligned to provincial, national and international guidelines. For more information on UCT’s Department of Medicine, please visit the website.

To watch more videos like these, visit the Department of Medicine’s YouTube channel.

Useful information from UCT

External resources

News and opinions

Statements and media releases

Media releases

Read more  

Statements from Government


In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”


We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.