/ 19 September 2016

#Fees2017: Wits students answer back after university locks down Solomon Mahlangu House

Fed up: Students at the University of the Witwatersrand protest at fee increases and demand institutional change.
Fed up: Students at the University of the Witwatersrand protest at fee increases and demand institutional change.

After initial tension between rival student political parties, students united to shutdown Wits University. It wasn’t, however, just the announcement from Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande which sparked protests. After private security and SAPS prevented students from entering Solomon Mahlangu House, students barricaded the campus.

“The university has not allowed us to re-enter Solomon Mahlangu House, which is where we wanted to have our meeting to discuss the announcement from the minister. We are saying if the university will not open Solomon Mahlangu House, we will not open the university,” outgoing SRC president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa said.

Last year, when the Fees Must Fall movement first shutdown the university, the university’s Senate House was re-named Solomon Mahlangu House after the slain anti-apartheid activist. Students listened to Nzimande’s announcement from the building and when it was over, the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) student party – which is aligned to the ANC – began organising for a mass meeting. An EFF student member, Simamkele Dlakavu, attempted to speak, but some in the crowd shouted: “Who are you?”

Dlakavu was one of the protesters who stood before President Jacob Zuma at the IEC local government election ceremony, demanding that South Africans #RememberKhwezi. The tension between PYA and EFF students momentarily led to confusion about leadership in the student movement, but more and more students rose up to demand unity and that free education be prioritised over party politics.

“We are not here for political agendas,” a student said. “What these comrades are doing here is disgraceful.”

Shortly after, students in red berets rubbed shoulders with students donning black PYA t-shirts to march around the campus and gather more student protesters. When they returned to Solomon House, they found that private security and SAPS had blocked the entrance. The students attempted to talk to the security offficials, before leaving to shut down the university.

“We paid for this house!” a student protester said.

The students marched to the Yale Road entrance of Wits, where they took one orange traffic cone and placed it at the gate. A small crowd then formed a line at the entrance, before a PYA student instructed the larger crowd to disperse to other entrance and exits and blockade them.

The Empire Road entrance was blockaded and so were the gates at Enoch Sontonga Avenue. An altercation occurred at Enoch Sontonga when private security attempted to push students away, but the students remained.

At Yale Road, a Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD)car also attempted to leave the university and a disagreement broke out between student protesters and the EFF and PYA student leaders. The crowd of protesters wanted the gate to remain blocked while EFF and PYA said that they wanted police out of campus.

“These people are the police and we don’t want the police on our campus,” an EFF student said, standing on top of the pillar that operates the boom gate.

Eventually the JMPD van was allowed out, after a PYA student asked some EFF students holding a bar across the entrance to lay it down. For now, students want Solomon House to be re-opened so they can hold the mass meeting. Mkhatshwa has told students to keep all entrances closed and that the cops must stay inside. The outgoing SRC president said that students will not meet in the street, which is the alternative if the building remains closed.

A student mass meeting was set to take place at 4pm on Monday, pending the re-opening of the building. The length of the shutdown will be determined by the student collective.

“That can only be decided at the student mass meeting,” Mkhatshwa said.

Wits University management has yet to respond to the protests or announce a shutdown, but Mkhatshwa said that management had contacted students to discourage any protest action.