Students protest a range of grievances

South African students reacted sharply to revelations of racism at the University of the Free State, organising marches there and on campuses around the country. The South African Students’ Congress has been at the forefront of protests against racism which, as its president David Maimela has pointed out, is not a new issue for black students. Last week he welcomed news that Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, has decided to appoint a commission of inquiry into racism and other forms of discrimination in universities. However, he said in a statement that “we believe it a rather late response” based on reaction to the embarrassing incident at Free State. Students would only celebrate when they saw the “heads of complacent and incompetent people” roll. Sasco was invited to write an article for this Special Africa Edition of University World News, but instead referred to statements that it has produced on the issue.

The Sasco view, according to Maimela, is that the Minister of Education and leaders of the University of the Free State should be fired: “There is no reason why the perpetrators of racism must remain in the system. Here we need not wait for the outcomes of the commission; there is a clear instance of transgression of our constitution and an insult to our social fibre. Besides the courts, which we observe and respect, the education system and its leaders must take strong action against perpetrators of racism in our universities. Racism is a crime against humanity and therefore punishable. If universities can impose banishment for students who plagiarise or cheat in exams, what about those who commit a crime against humanity? Of course, we want natural justice to be observed but at the end people must account for their actions.”

On 12 March more than 300 students gathered in central Tshwane (formerly Pretoria) and staged a protest march against racism and the slow place of transformation in higher education. On the same day, workers at Free State demonstrated in front of the main building of the university. These are but two of many university-related protests this year, over a variety of issues including increases in student fees, lousy conditions in residences and more recently the Free State race case.

The students who marched in Tshwane handed in a memorandum of grievances and demands to the Minister, including for her resignation, expulsion of the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, an end to the “victimisation” of student leaders, and reviews of university mergers and institutional autonomy. The following is the text of the memorandum:

SASCO's Memorandum of grievances and demands to the Minister of Education Ms Naledi Pandor and the Executive Cabinet of the Government of the Republic of South Africa

12 March 2008

WHEREAS, we are the students of South Africa from all walks of life organised under the leadership of the South African Students' Congress (Sasco).

WHEREAS, we are fully supported by our allies, religious organisations, non-governmental organisations, the labour movement, the union of South African students and other campus based student formations, our friends over the seas, the general public and the media.

WHEREAS, we are gathered here in Tshwane having given up our studies for a day, we rightfully claim to have genuine and justifiable grievances about fundamental issues of transformation in higher education.

WHEREAS, we have taken up the major step to raise our grievances through this solidarity protest march to a government that must serve the people of South Africa including its youth and students.

We wish to declare for the country and all her people to know that higher education is in crisis and needs urgent and thoroughgoing attention from the ANC-led government!

Our Grievances

We duly make the following correct observations:

- Racism and racial discrimination continues to be one of the defining features of our higher education system, our universities. The demon of racism is not dead. Racism is rife in our universities affecting in the main, black students and workers. Racism is today disguised as "institutional culture and tradition", racism is a disastrous cancer especially in the historically white institutions (HWI). Racism manifests itself in various ways, racism is systematic and institutional in our campuses.

- Government support in terms of allocation of resources continues to favour white universities over black universities and this perpetuates inequalities of the past in the system. White universities continue to be the model centres of academic excellence whereas black universities are gradually disappearing in the face of the earth. In this way, government perpetuates racism!

- Institutional autonomy and academic freedom continues to be used-abused as a defence mechanism by reactionary universities that refuse to transform. Universities have abused their autonomy and have not been fully accountable. The Ministry has allowed unfettered autonomy in the system. As a result, universities have become islands isolated from the reality of the new South Africa.

- The policy of mergers and incorporations has violated rights of students and workers alike. It has negatively affected access to education, and decent and secure jobs for workers. Both the idea and the implementation of the policy of mergers have proven to be a disaster. The mergers have become a source of tension and turmoil in our campuses. The mergers have not achieved their intended objectives. Campuses are closing down against our wishes and lives are being destroyed. The mergers have certified the racist idea that universities cannot be universities unless they are located in the cities!

- Academic and financial exclusion accompanied by poor student services continues to violate the right of students to education. The Student Enrolment Plan by the Ministry has increased the pace and the casualties of exclusions. The Ministry has failed to regulate fees and has been sending wrong signals about free education for the poor recently.

- There is widespread victimisation of student leaders by managers in our universities. This happens in various forms. This constitutes a violation of our civil rights. The victimisation of student leaders is intended to silence the gallant voice of students and thereby turn our universities into conformist dictatorial fiefdoms of unscrupulous vice-chancellors who are mostly incompetent and reactionary.

- We also note the crumbling of our former University of the North under the leadership of Professor Mokgalong as vice-chancellor. The Independent Assessor Report has proven him and his team to be incompetent and unfit to run the new University of Limpopo. The University of Limpopo is rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth.

- We also note the poor leadership of the Minister of Education, Ms Naledi Pandor. She has failed without reason to institute a commission of enquiry into racism in our campuses in 2005. Higher education and its stakeholders do not seem to be a priority to the Minister. The education system can hardly be called a system and yet no strong leadership is forthcoming!

Our demands

- We demand strong leadership from government, racism is repugnant, backward and inexcusable. For the second and last time, we demand a full scale investigation and remedies to the ongoing racism in all our universities. Racism must end. This matter must be a priority!

- In UOFS in particular, we demand proper support for the victims. The Vice-Chancellor and the EXCO must be fired. The students must be expelled and refused further enrolment in all SA universities for an extent period of time. The culprits must go to jail. Racial integration will and must continue!

- We demand an end to all humiliating initiation practices and other human rights violations in our universities, without further delay.

- Institutional autonomy and academic freedom must be redefined in a manner that makes universities fully accountable. The current status quo is not acceptable. We need to review the procedure to appoint Vice-Chancellors and Councils and other governing structures. We want democratic universities!

- We demand a government funding policy that will affirm and uplift black universities and re-establish them as centres of academic excellence and we need genuine and thoroughgoing redress of the disparities between black and white universities. The Ministry must publicly embrace the resolution to introduce free education for the poor!

- We demand a comprehensive policy review of the mergers with a view to repair the damage caused so far. We demand without delay that all closed campuses be restored as sites of delivery. Our townships shall be proud locations of world-class universities. Down with racism!

- We demand an end to the victimisation of student leaders. The Ministry, the student organisations, security agencies and university principals shall enter into an agreement to end victimisation including, academic t errorism!

- Professor Mokgalong and his Esco, the Council of University of Limpopo must all go, it is too late already. University of Limpopo has no leadership!

- The Minister of Education has two options: either to voluntarily resign or be fired by the State President. She has not provided sufficient political oversight in higher education. The system is in crisis. The Minister has undermined and failed to work with student and worker organisations. The Ministry has no understanding of the challenges facing the sub-sector!

- We demand transformation in higher education, we demand the establishment of a dedicated separate Executive Authority at the Ministry level to exercise political oversight in higher education!

These demands shall be responded to within seven, days failure of which we will protest again! Away with racism away. We want leadership now. We want strong and decisive leadership now!