The director general of higher education and training, Gwebinkundla Qonde, heeded the call by students and workers for government intervention, following a week of public violence and the arrest of 16 students on Wednesday.
Labour unions, led by the National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu), are demanding an 8-10% salary increase, while management is offering 4.25%. The nine-month long negotiations came to a deadlock on July 23, leading to a six-week "no work, no pay" strike.
The university's position is that "we have a debt of just under R200-million and have since applied for a cash boost of R3-billion from the National Treasury. As it is, 70% of our annual budget goes into salaries and we do not collect much from student fees," said university spokesperson Angela Church.
Qonde is expected to outline on Thursday the department's turnaround framework for the institution and report on progress made under extremely difficult circumstances, as it was placed under administration in 2011 and its senior management and council dissolved.
Nehawu national spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said the union has deployed a team of organisers as it was made aware by the university that it will be going back to the Joint Bargaining Forum. "To say that there is no money is poor labour relations. In fact, the whole handling of this matter has been the poorest we have ever seen. There is such a thing as an indefinite strike," he said.
Pamla says the workers expected the introduction of an administrator to come with a substantial cash injection that factored in salary increases. "When [Higher Education Minister Blade] Nzimande sent in an administrator, surely he didn't expect the workers to shoulder responsibility for a failed management system. They are obviously ill-equipped to negotiate and they underestimated the worker's frustrations," he said.
Students have since joined the demonstrations following university administrator Professor Lourens van Staden's decision on Tuesday to have all university students in residences vacate the premises until further notice.
Local police arrested 16 students from the Butterworth campus on Wednesday morning for public violence and vandalism of private property on the N2 highway to Durban. Students allegedly threw stones at motorists and disrupted schools in surrounding towns and villages.
There were rumours that police used live ammunition to disperse the crowds. But Butterworth police spokesperson Jackson Manatha denied that any shots, even with rubber bullets, were fired.
"No one was shot today. Instead, we arrested the hooligans. The students are calmer now after the mayor of Mnquma municipality came to address them," he said.
Police had to disperse students on the East London campus after they barricaded main roads and caused a traffic jam. "The students have been very patient, until a week ago. A lot of them were hurt and taken to hospital for rubber bullet injuries. This is why we need them to go home," said Church.
"Last year during such demonstrations, a student lost his life. The volatile situation that is unfolding has made it impossible for management to guarantee their safety. We have extended the vacation deadline to Friday. We hope they will abide," she said.
Van Staden says management will continue to find alternatives to the ongoing labour strike. But he pleaded with the unions to understand that this is not business as usual, or a case of an employer refusing to sacrifice profits.
The university has 27 000 students from a primarily disadvantaged area of the Eastern Cape.
Meanwhile, the ANC Youth League said on Wednesday that the salary dispute at the WSU will have a detrimental effect on the future of the students.
"There has been no learning and teaching for over three months now, which means effectively no academic activity has taken place in the second semester of 2013," said spokesperson Bandile Masuku.
He said the department of higher education and university management failed to resolve the salary dispute which was currently in the labour court.
"WSU, like many historically disadvantaged universities, even post mergers, have been plunged into a permanent state of paralysis and crises, most being run by university administrators."
Masuku said the ANCYL called on the parties involved to speedily resolve the dispute as it was not in the best interest of the students.
"We are disgusted by the brutality of unleashing state police against innocent and peaceful students," spokesperson Justice Digashu said in a statement.
Masuku said 16 students – seven women and nine men – were arrested at the Ibika campus next to Butterworth, and claimed that scores of other students were shot with rubber bullets.
Masuku demanded a speedy resolution so they go back to class and said a solidarity march had been planned to the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, on Friday.