Universities

Wits protest turns into full-blown hunger strike

Bongani Nkosi

A protest by a group of students over the dismissal of 17 chefs at Wits University has culminated in an indefinite hunger strike.

Students at Wits University are protesting to express their dissatisfaction with university management. (M&G)
The Mail & Guardian found over 20 students picketing in the concourse of Senate House, the university’s central administrative building, when it visited the main campus earlier on Monday. 
 
A pile of blankets indicated the students slept there, with most of them were engrossed in their books and laptops.
 
According to Tebogo Thothela, president of the Wits Student Representative Council, about 40 students moved into the concourse with their blankets, books and other amenities on Sunday night.
 
“We study here. We have had some progressive lecturers coming here for lectures,” he said. “We basically live here.”
 
Thothela explained that the picket was part of the Occupy the Senate House campaign.
 
The hunger strike is but one of various ways with which they mean to express their dissatisfaction with university management, he said. Rallies and marches have been planned for the week ahead.
 
‘Injustice’
The students have accused Wits’s management of failing to intervene over the dismissal of the workers. Royal Mnandi Food Service Solutions, a company Wits outsourced to run catering at its facilities, dismissed the 17 chefs in January over alleged insubordination. Their matter is now being heard in the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.
 
Thothela said the hunger strike was aimed at compelling management to act and ensure that the cooks were reinstated without conditions. He confirmed to the M&G they “will go on until management intervenes”.
 
The students want management to intervene on the “basis that injustice is happening within the university”, said Thothela. “The 17 [chefs] were dismissed unfairly,” he said. 
 
Royal Mnandi relocated the workers from the business campus in Parktown to the main campus in Braamfontein without consulting them, the striking students alleged. “[The company] dismissed them when they went to their original work stations as a way of voicing their dissatisfaction,” Thothela said.
 
But Royal Mnandi has defended its decision to dismiss the chefs. “We believe we have followed due process throughout the dismissal of these employees both procedurally and substantively. The conduct of the employees was addressed in terms of the company’s code of conduct,” Pauline Mahlangu, the company’s human resources executive, told the M&G.
 
In solidarity with the workers, over 2 000 students embarked on a food boycott last week. Thothela explained that the protest is part of a broader campaign against outsourcing of non-academic work as practiced by Wits University.
 
‘Moral obligation’
Pearl Pillay, a student who is president of Wits Amnesty International, said her participation in the hunger strike is driven by “injustice committed against workers”.
 
“We have a moral obligation to get involved when injustice is done, especially at our university,” said Pillay.
 
But it has not been an easy task, she admitted. “It has been very cold. Hunger is starting to kick in,” Pillay said. “It is difficult but we’ve got a lot of support, which helps.”
 
Another student, Thando Mabandla, said she is participating because “it is our mothers and fathers that are being treated unfairly”.
 
Meanwhile, Wits management maintained it cannot intervene over the dismissal of 17 cooks because an outsourced company employed them. ” ... The university [management] is not in a position to comment on the disciplinary processes of another company”, said Wits spokesperson, Shirona Patel.
 
“Students and staff have a right to protest, strike or to voice their opinions provided that they do so peacefully,” Patel added.

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