Unrest at NWU (again)

North West University (NWU) managers have challenged Education Minister Naledi Pandor’s intervention at the unrest-torn university, saying they were not consulted about the “drastic step” of a commission of inquiry.

Vice-chancellor Theuns Eloff also suggested that Pandor was pressured into the move by Cosatu and the South African Communist Party in North West province.

Last week Pandor announced an inquiry into the “affairs of the university” and the implementation of its merger after three weeks of student demonstrations at the Mafikeng campus in which the senate hall, administration block and a student residence were torched. On Thursday 49 students were arrested and charged with public violence. Damage is estimated at more than R1-million.

In a letter to the Mail & Guardian last week Eloff said that after the violence erupted on the campus Cosatu and the SACP in North West joined forces with staff associations to destabilise the Mafikeng campus.

The two organisations and students have called for the sacking of campus rector Dan Kgwadi because he “voted for Mbeki” at the ANC’s Polokwane conference. Eloff said that recent calls for the dismantling of the merged institution are playing a role.

NWU was born of a merger of Potchefstroom University and the University of Bophuthatswana in Mafikeng.

Eloff said Pandor’s intervention left the council perturbed, as it had not been consulted. “We have no knowledge of the terms of reference for the investigation or who the minister would appoint [as administrator]. It is, however, clear, also from sources in the department, that this investigation does not amount to the appointment of an administrator or even an assessor,” said Eloff.

The Higher Education Act makes provision for an assessor to be appointed in serious circumstances. This did not apply to the university, he said. “One can therefore ask the question: what happened to move the minister to [take] such a drastic step?”

After the council requested urgent talks Pandor met council chairperson Peet van der Walt and his deputy, Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, in Cape Town this week. Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, confirmed that the ministry has not appointed an administrator and that the inquiry’s terms of reference have not been finalised.

In March this year academic activities came to a halt on the Mafikeng campus when students demonstrated against the “manner that the university’s management operates”.

This was followed by a violent protest against a proposed 13% tuition fee hike and further upheavals after management stopped a student party that turned violent. When four students were expelled and three suspended after being convicted of public violence more violence erupted over student demands for their reinstatement.

Eloff said that most issues have been finalised but others are still receiving attention. “The students agreed that due process of law ... would be respected,” he said.

He said that it was the agenda of the seven students and the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) that was central to the unrest rather than academic issues. “The modus operandi of the students, in this case led by the newly elected Sasco-led SRC, is to intimidate and prevent other students from attending classes. In some cases they also, and we have written proof of this, intimidated staff members who started lecturing.”

Eloff said the SRC has been given time to prepare a document setting out its grievances. The matter will be discussed at a special council meeting on October 16.

Sasco general secretary Magasela Mzobe said students have complained for some time about the “arrogant management of the university” and believe Pandor’s intervention is long overdue. Sasco condemned the violence, which is “against [its] principles and makes [its members] look like morons”.

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