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#FeesMustFall: The academics who stand behind the students

In the two years that the #FeesMustFall movement has taken shape, the voices of one group, besides the students, has grown particularly louder and more energetic: the academics. Whether they are lecturers who support the students, or those who disagree with the protests, the academics are becoming more important in the greater story of #FeesMustFall.

Last year, a video which showed three academics from the University of Cape Town (UCT) negotiating with riot police was widely shared. Students at UCT were protesting outside the university’s management offices at Bremner Building, and some of the protesters had occupied a room inside the building. At the moment the video was recorded, riot police, acting on an interdict, were preparing to evict students from the building and these staff members were asking them to stand down.

“My name is Professor Adam Haupt. I teach these students. I’m here to ensure that nothing happens to them. The way you are dressed … you’ve got guns, you’ve got all sorts of things, they have nothing,” Haupt, a lecturer in media studies, told a public order policeman.

Minutes later, students were arrested, and one injured young woman would have to be treated by emergency medical response after the police had released stun grenades and teargas.

It happened almost a year to this day and now more academics are speaking out in solidarity with the student protesters. Yesterday, after Braamfontein in Johannesburg became swarmed with riot police, chasing students down in inyalas, Kelly Gillespie, the head of anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand penned an open letter to finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

“Today I saw one of my students have her eyelid lacerated by a rubber bullet. I saw another have a full-blown panic attack as a consequence of an exploding stun grenade. On Tuesday I tried to comfort a student wailing and gasping from teargas. I held the hand of another being wheeled to hospital weeping uncontrollably after her head was split open by a flying stun grenade canister. Do you have any idea what it is like to be a teacher responsible for the lives and learning of these students and to see such violence brought down upon them, to see them in such devastation? It feels like a seismic betrayal,” Gillespie wrote.

She went on to describe how some of the injured students are unable to afford the medical care, or basic necessities like food, that they need, while fighting for a demand that rests in part on the shoulders of the finance ministry: free education.

“In other words – and let me be quite clear about this – your department is structurally responsible for the violence that I witnessed on campus today, that my colleagues and I must face in dealing with the very real lives and bodies of young people in our institutions. While I am furious with Wits management for its role in the militarisation of campus that exacerbates and flares this conflict, they have no power to change the underlying structural conditions that fuel campus violence. You do,” Gilllespie wrote.

The glaring silence of the finance ministry, the presidency and the ministry of higher education should be challenged. As many have pointed out, the decision-makers of free education implementation are in government, not in the university management. Yet, President Zuma is in Kenya, while the fabric of tertiary education is splitting at the seams.

There is a leadership crisis in South Africa, and there has been for some time. Students are leading the way in their own protests, as they should be, but the academics are at the sidelines to lend wisdom and comfort. At Wits, some of the lecturers have even helped students draft their model for free education.

The university managements have said they are attempting to engage with students. At the University of Johannesburg, Ihron Rensburg said that the students and management can’t come to an agreement. At Wits, the senior executive team have said students are unwilling to come to the table. While at UCT, where classes have not yet resumed, negotiations have been under way at length for a TRC on the Shackville protest at the univeristy, which resulted in suspensions and expulsions.

But still, there is no resolution on the fees crisis. Some academics have spoken out against protesters, like Professor David Benatar, the head of the philosophy department at UCT, while students have criticised lecturers at Wits who continue to secretly teach.

These academics are in favour of the academic programme resuming because they say that the rights of students who wish to continue learning are being infringed upon. Despite the blast of stun grenades and pops of rubber bullets echoing through Wits yesterday, the university released a statement saying “over half of all lectures went ahead today across all campuses”.

At the other end of the spectrum, various faculties across universities have released statements saying that they will refuse to teach if police and private security are posted on campus.

“I believe that we should find a way to resume classes. I think that’s very important, we need to complete the academic year. Of course, we don’t want to see a disruption of classes, but at the same time, as an academic at the university, I am deeply uncomfortable having to lecture with security around the university,” Noor Nieftagodien, head of a history workshop at Wits, told the Mail & Guardian after violence erupted last Tuesday at the university.

The question of free education and the protests are no longer just being tackled by the students, but also the academics who are becoming more influential in the trajectory of where the pieces will fall. 

A previous version of this article cited a tweet that named Srila Roy as one of the academics who ‘continued to secretly teach’. This was incorrect. We regret the error and apologise for not offering Roy a right of reply before publishing. 

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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