Last week the South African Union of Students called for a national shutdown of all universities, accusing the higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, of failing to meet 15 demands in the student union’s memorandum. The demands included scrapping historical debt and for students with historical debt to be allowed to register, funding for postgraduate studies, addressing the shortage of student accommodation and free registration for poor and “missing middle” students.
These and other issues are not new. In fact they could easily be a copy-and-paste of what they submitted to former higher education minister Naledi Pandor last year.
A few universities heeded the call by the student union to join the national shutdown, resulting in the disruption of registration when the protest turned ugly and violent on some campuses.
But this past weekend, the student union called for an end to the shutdown after it met Nzimande and Universities South Africa — an association of universities — and a consensus was achieved on some of the demands.
But damage had already been done on some campuses and the scenes of what happened at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) were jaw-dropping to say the least.
The student union called for the shutdown on Monday, January 27. Two days later students at UKZN petrol-bombed the security control building and a vehicle belonging to the university.
On Monday, February 3 — after the union called off the shutdown — UKZN students torched another car, an HIV support centre and an office for student residence affairs.
The next day they burned a lecture hall.
Newspaper headlines screamed that the students promised they would burn down the entire university if their demands were not met.
The few days of their protest has, without doubt, set the KwaZulu-Natal university back by millions of rands in damages.
Last year, UKZN students burned mattresses and flung them out of windows, because they were fed up with sleeping in “uncomfortable beds”.
So by burning the “uncomfortable” beds did they think new ones were suddenly going to appear?
It must be disappointing and embarrassing for a parent to be called and told that their child has been arrested for torching university property. And now the parent — probably a poor parent — has to scramble around to find bail money, which might involve going to loan sharks.
I wonder if these students ever stop to think about the effects of their actions.
This is in no way invalidating the concerns of students.
But let us say all these demands are met. Where are these students going to go for inquiries about student accommodation now that they have torched that office? Where should students living with HIV go when they need support, because that office has been burned down. Where will they attend classes because a lecture hall also went up in smoke?
There is no logic in all of this. And there can never be any explanation that would excuse their action. None.
What is perhaps most depressing about it all is that these are the people the country is looking to as future leaders. If the thuggish students of UKZN — those who are responsible for the mayhem of the past few days — represent the calibre of the leaders we will rely on to advance this country then, sadly, there will be a very long way to go.
There is nothing radical or revolutionary about burning down university property while claiming to be fighting for access to education. It’s vandalism, qha qwaba.