/ 21 October 2016

‘Peace conditional on releasing students’

Fired up: University of Cape Town students ­protest on the campus this week.
Fired up: University of Cape Town students ­protest on the campus this week.

The wave of student protests rolling through universities across the campus has gathered momentum in the face of increasing police violence and student arrests.

Recent protests have been underpinned by a call for the release of students who have been arrested, as well as opposition to police involvement — some students have accused police of using “excessive force”.

On Thursday #FeesMustFall leader and former Wits student representative council president (SRC) Shaeera Kalla was shot by police.

Students have gone so far as to say that peace is contingent on the release of students. This was the case at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Pietermaritzburg campus. Students have continued demonstrations at all of UKZN’s campuses over the past month, citing the release of 13 students as a condition for peace.

“Most of us are angered by how the judiciary has handled some of the cases … You have to differentiate between criminals and students. They can’t treat us like those robbers and rapists,” said SRC member Sunshine Myende.

“Some were given bail of R5 000 each, which we obviously can’t afford because we are on financial aid. And this automatically [excludes them] from writing exams because they can’t get enough marks to qualify while in jail.”

In the Eastern Cape, the Walter Sisulu University (WSU), Nelson Mandela Metro University (NMMU) and Rhodes University were shut down this week.

WSU students aligned to the Economic Freedom Fighters and Pan African Students Movement refused to protest alongside the ANC-aligned South African Congress of Students.

More than 30 students were arrested at NMMU for public violence when they barricaded roads and tried to shut down the campus when it opened on Wednesday.

Rhodes University SRC member Naledi Mashishi said police imposed a curfew at the campus.

“SAPS argued there wasn’t a curfew but two police officers told us that we weren’t allowed on campus. We have laid charges against the police for excessive use of force … The situation is touch and go but we don’t have any planned negotiations with management about #FeesMustFall or the academic programme.”

Students at the University of Cape Town this week confronted vice-chancellor Max Price, demanding the release of student leader Masixole Mlandu. He was arrested earlier this month and sent to Pollsmoor Prison.

Price stood his ground, saying Mlandu has been accused of breaking into campus protection services (CPS) offices and intimidating guards. “We agreed that CPS was a critical service that is not to be interfered with and that agreement was breached. That is a separate charge and I’m not going to lift that charge. [Arresting Mlandu] was the right thing to do.”

At Wits, after five weeks of protests, students claimed to have been “ambushed” into meeting their vice-chancellor, Adam Habib.

Students say Habib has been invited to address mass meetings ever since the protests began, but failed to show up.

On Wednesday Habib accepted an invitation from Professor Vishwas Satgar to participate in negotiations for a peace accord to be held at the Holy Trinity Church next to Wits, where police had, on October 10, fired a rubber bullet at a priest, hitting him in the face.

“We agreed to this meeting because it’s on neutral ground,” Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said inside the church, amid calls for Habib to leave.

Student leader Vuyani Pambo asked: “How can you come here and sing the same songs with us while you call police to shoot us and arrest us?”

Habib denied he has refused to address protestors, saying that he regularly held private meetings with the student leadership.

“I speak to students all the time. Sometimes off the record, sometimes on … Actually, ask them how many times they’ve met me quietly,” Habib told the Mail & Guardian.

Former public protector Thuli Madonsela, union leader Zwelinzima Vavi and former union leader Jay Naidoo have thrown their weight behind the Wits students.

Addressing a meeting at Wits’s Senate House on Wednesday — hours after a #FeesMustFall leader, Mcebo Dlamini, was denied bail — Madonsela described the protests as a legitimate struggle. “Police cannot continue to act as a buffer between students and the government. Now is the time to talk about when and how [free education can be achieved], not if,” she said.

Vavi was cheered when he told students to continue protesting until the arrested students were freed. “There can be no peace until all of the 567 students who were arrested during protests are released,” he said.