A group of politically non-aligned students has raised its flag at the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Auckland Park campus after allegedly being “sold out” by their ANC-aligned South African Student Congress (Sasco) leaders.
The independent students say they’re prepared to endure beatings and “apartheid-era” surveillance, if they have to, in the name of more accessible higher education.
“I couldn’t sleep the whole of that Wednesday night [two weeks ago] … we knew the other universities were protesting but it was quiet by us,” Anele, a student who only provided her first name for fear of victimisation by the university, told the Mail & Guardian this week.
She and five other leaders of the independent UJ student movement described how a handful of them used social media to mobilise students to join the national protests over proposed fee increases that rocked the country two weeks ago.
The Sasco-led student representative council (SRC) had been in meetings with university management that week and were pushing the no-protest line, they said.
“The SRC president [Khutso Rammutla] came down to us and told us to stop what we were doing.”
Another student, Siviwe, said Rammutla told them: “The protest doesn’t affect us because the fees increase at UJ hasn’t been announced yet.”
By mid-morning on Thursday last week, hundreds of UJ students had gathered and protested in the name of no increases. Later that day, at a mass meeting the SRC had called, another student, Boitumelo told the M&G: “It became clear that no one was taking the SRC seriously … The rest of the country was protesting but where were they?”
Siviwe said Independent UJ was created because politically aligned student movements “sell out, hijack organic student protests and just push their own agendas”.
Claire, another student, said vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg was “using the SRC to keep students in line instead of letting it represent students’ real views”.
In the wake of that volatile Thursday, Independent UJ drew up a petition demanding, among other things, no registration fees, no victimisation of protesting students, an end to the outsourcing of workers within an agreed time frame and free tuition for workers and their children. It has about 600 signatories so far. They also shared a statement on social media saying their SRC was “consistently dismissive of the concerns of students”.
Their vitriol has been mirrored in similar struggles around student unity at other universities, including the University of the Witwatersrand.
After reaching an agreement with management over the shutting down of the campus, some Wits students slated their SRC for allegedly accepting money from the ANC to end the shutdown.
Since the protests erupted two weeks ago, Independent UJ’s leaders have been closely monitored by the university and have become victims of what Anele describes as “apartheid-era intimidation tactics”.
“Smile, you’re on camera,” one of the students told the M&G. A university employee was recording our interview on a video camera.
“When you walk out of your res there’s someone watching you, while you eat, while you shop there’s someone recording you,” Boitumelo said.
UJ’s deputy vice-chancellor for strategic services, Mpho Letlape, told the M&G the order had been given to security staff to record “incidents”.
“It is best that we have our own video footage so we can keep track of what happens, but when it comes to people being recorded as they go about their daily lives, I’m not aware of that.”
About 40 followers of the movement, including workers, occupied Rensburg’s office “peacefully”, they said, on Monday night and were physically removed by security in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
They told the M&G several students were “slapped, kicked, beaten and manhandled”.
A Tuesday press release by the university said “efforts from a small group of ‘independents’ to undermine the authority of the freely elected UJ SRC and the agreements reached with the UJ SRC continues. This cannot be tolerated.”
Boitumelo said: “We will write exams and we will keep mobilising until the VC [vice-chancellor] speaks to us.”
Zinto Chonco, Sasco’s secretary at UJ’s Auckland Park campus, told the M&G the ANC-aligned organisation has struggled to juggle the “different dynamics at different campuses” but denied that the organisation had lost touch with the majority of students.
“As the Sasco-led SRC, we support workers and students … some of us were at that Thursday protest.” She said the SRC’s demands were the same as those of Independent UJ.
“If students want to protest, we will protest,” Letlape added.