Sit-down-and-talk is key to UJ calm

Really hearing, not just listening, to students' concerns has caused students to think twice about joining the #FeesMustFall protests, university management said. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Really hearing, not just listening, to students' concerns has caused students to think twice about joining the #FeesMustFall protests, university management said. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

When student protests exploded on South Africa’s campuses on Monday, the University of Johannesburg continued in a business-as-usual fashion. It was only on Thursday that UJ students joined their Wits University peers in protest. Why the difference?

Commenters said that UJ has been actively trying to prioritise poor students’ needs for some time, with a series of measures.

Lucky Thekisho, the chairperson of the Higher Education Transformation Network, said UJ vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg “sits with them, marches with them”.

“He managed to handle this matter in a polite and mature way, rather than just respond out of anger.
The response was correct but it doesn’t take away the problems that are there, which is the struggle of poor students to pay fees … they must do more for black, deserving students,” Thekisho said, adding: “Other vice-chancellors must leave this thing of being aloof, arrogant and know-it-all. They must make students a serious part of management.”

For Rensburg, it has been a long process of trying, failing and trying again. “We had fairly substantial student protests in 2007 over fees which caused us to rethink our approach to engaging with students,” he said.

“The approach then was, ‘Here’s the data, we think this [percentage] increase is required, feel free to comment.’ It wasn’t successful.”

Since 2008 the approach has changed to “engage, engage, engage” and “typically involves five or six engagements before we arrive at a decision”.

This exacting consultation process led to a range of alternative solutions, particularly aggressive fundraising and valuable partnerships, aimed at helping poorer students.

Gift of the Givers agreed to donate R10-million to student meals this year and R37-million was donated by several skills education and training authorities (Setas). The university also started the UJ Future Walk this year – a 5km walk and 8km run. It raised R1-million and the aim is to increase that to R5-million next year. Due partly to these partnerships,

UJ contributed:

• R45-million towards the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding shortfall;

• R20-million for 17 inter-campus student buses; 

• R11-million for two meals a day for 3 500 students; and 

• R9-million for the student representative council’s (SRC) trust, to be used to help poor students pay their registration fees.

Although UJ’s 49 000 students have not been as vociferous

participants in the protests, some students suggested this might change and blamed the SRC for bowing to management.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous, said the call by students at other universities to protest for free higher education was not supported by UJ’s SRC. He said he was a member of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) whose leaders are on the SRC leadership.

“The students want to strike for this but the SRC doesn’t support them because they don’t want to go against university management or the ANC … it’s a big risk for Sasco because they are going against what the students want; all that will happen is Sasco will lose votes and students will protest anyway.”

SRC president and Sasco member Khutso Rammutla did not respond to a request for comment.

An Economic Freedom Fighters activist, who is a student and also asked to remain anonymous, said the SRC was “not really part of this protest thing”.

It is not supporting the protests. Some students are behind the strike if it means free education but others say it’s too late and they just want to write their exams.”

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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