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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.

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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