State ‘advised varsity shutdown’

The department of higher education recently advised the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal to consider shutting down because of the ongoing violent protests.

This was confirmed by Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, which represents the country’s 26 universities.

He added: “It definitely couldn’t have been an instruction; I think it was an advisement.

“I suspect that the logic must have been that the epicentre of the demonstrations must have been Wits, UCT and UKZN and that if they shut down for a period of time, it might prevent the demonstrations from spreading to the other campuses.

“Ultimately, that’s a decision [to shut down] that can only be made within the university by the executive management and council.”

Bawa said a vice-chancellor had told him about the department’s approach.

Higher education director general Gwebinkundla Qonde said no specific institutions were asked to close: “What we indicated was that if lives of people are in danger and [if there’s] massive destruction of property, I think institutions should assess the situation and consider closing with a view to protecting human life”.

If things get out of hand, he said, closing down is “one of the options that institutions have at their disposal.”

Asked whether the government had asked Wits to close, vice-chancellor Adam Habib said he had had conversations with the department “at various moments” about how to respond to the unrest appropriately.

“The ministry has always acknow-ledged that the decision on whether we open or close is a decision for Wits and its council, its senate and its management. It’s not a decision that the department can make and they’ve respected that.

“We discussed with them multiple options, but they recognised our option is to remain open. Ultimately, if we see violence and we can’t bring it to heel, then we will have no option [but to close],” Habib said.

Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said the department had not advised the institution to close down.

Meanwhile, security has been beefed up at Habib’s official residence at Wits following “safety concerns”.

Habib confirmed that measures had been taken to protect his house after recent threats. “It’s a very unfortunate thing. I don’t know of many places in the world where university vice-chancellors are threatened.”

He was reluctant to confirm or deny whether he had moved out because of security concerns.

“My family and I have been attacked [verbally]. We have had security concerns at various moments last year, and also this year and recently. There was a request [by protesting students] to walk into my house. I said: ‘No, I will not receive it.’ But it was a security concern. I interpreted it as a threat to my family and so we have had threats; that’s about all I can say.”

On Tuesday, Wits was plunged into disarray when police fired stun grenades and teargas at protesting students during running battles.

During the violent skirmishes, which made international headlines, students hurled stones and rocks at officers and overturned a police vehicle. Scenes of topless female students protesting went viral on social media.

Habib said he believed officers should be trained “appropriately” to quell protests in a way “that is compatible with a democratic society”.

Some embattled institutions are preparing to help students write exams off-campus should they remain closed indefinitely.

Academics at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, which has been closed for two weeks, have been meeting at a museum and in school halls to plan catch-up programmes.

NMMU spokesperson Debbie Derry said: “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. NMMU staff are committed to their students and to completing the 2016 academic year.” She said staff want to complete the academic year in a way that is “sensitive to our students”.

Derry said the unrest had forced the university’s support staff to temporarily convert the business school into their headquarters.

“We are working together in very trying times, but there is a great sense of camaraderie and commitment to do all that we can to make this work once we are back in the classroom,” she said.

The university was forced to cancel its award-winning choir’s tour to Canada and the United States in November because rehearsals were disrupted following student protests.

“Sadly, we have had to postpone a number of events such as inaugural lectures and celebratory cultural events,” Derry said.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) spokesperson Lauren Kansley said its contingency plan included finding a secure site off-campus for the exams. Last year, student unrest forced the university to use a military base to write exams.

CPUT was forced to suspend its academic programme on Monday after the administration building on its Bellville campus was occupied by hundreds of protesters.

Other institutions that remain closed because of unrest include:

  • Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape, where the academic programme has been suspended since September 22;
  • The University of Limpopo, which closed on September 28 after students attempted to vandalise university property; and
  • The Vaal University of Technology (VUT), which closed on September 22.

VUT spokesperson Mike Khuboni said there was a danger that students might lose the entire academic year if they continued disrupting lectures.

The vice-chancellor of Sol Plaatje University, Yunus Ballim, said: “Staff are in office, and students who are in residences have requested that they continue to receive study materials and assignments. They are working on their own and in study groups.”

Ballim said a prolonged shutdown may affect the university’s ability to register new students next year, adding: “We will also have to allow current students to return to complete their 2016 modules at no cost for tuition or residence.”

Unisa spokesperson Martin Ramotshela said the university had not shut down any service centres as a result of student protests. “The exams for the second semester and year modules for 2016 already commenced on September 28 and are proceeding smoothly,” he said.

Lectures have resumed at the University of Johannesburg, The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT), despite sporadic protest action.

UKZN, which lost days in August because of unrest, said its senate had appointed a task team to draft an academic recovery plan.

Saying that the department had not advised the university to shut down, spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka added: “We are confident that we will complete the academic year in 2016, provided that there aren’t any further disruptions to the academic programme.”

About 30 students tried to disrupt classes at DUT’s ML Sultan campus on Wednesday and six protesters were arrested. DUT said it would update students on the revised dates for tests and exams.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Protective equipment for schools in KwaZulu-Natal goes ‘missing’

Without protective equipment, schools in uMlazi, Pinetown and Zululand won’t meet the already delayed deadline for reopening

The statue of Louis XVI should remain forever handless

A statue of the French king in Louisville, Kentucky was damaged during the protests against police killings. It should not be repaired

On the road with East African truck drivers

In East Africa, truck drivers are being attacked, robbed and used as diplomatic footballs

Press Releases

Empowering his people to unleash their potential

'Being registered as an AGA(SA) means you are capable of engineering an idea and turning it into money,' says Raymond Mayekisa

What is an AGA(SA) and AT(SA) and why do they matter?

If your company has these qualified professionals it will help improve efficiencies and accelerate progress by assisting your organisation to perform better

Mining company uses rich seam of technology to gear up for Covid-19

Itec Direct technology provides instant temperature screening of staff returniing to the workplace with no human contact

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday