SOUTH AFRICA: Disruptive student protests suspended

Students at the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and Pretoria in South Africa staged a series of demonstrations this month. At Wits students were opposing plans to increase fees, and at Pretoria the call was for political party representation in the students' representative council. At both universities the protests were anything but peaceful and democratic.

They were the latest in a succession of student troubles that have beleaguered several South African universities this year, most of them about student costs and conditions.

Students at Wits disrupted lectures for three days in mid- September as they protested against fee hikes proposed for 2010. The students united under a Progressive Youth Alliance comprising the South African Student Congress (Sasco), ANC Youth League and Young Communist League (YCL).

The university - which enrolled some 28,500 students this year - had proposed fee increases from 9% to 9.5% next year for most courses except the MBA, for which fees would rise by 15%. Residence fees were likely to increase by 11.8 %.

YCL provincial secretary Alex Mashilo described fee increases as an assault on students from poor and working class communities: "The continuing commoditisation of education and related student fee increments serve to reproduce national, class and gender inequalities that were transferred from colonial and apartheid socio-economic relations," he said.

Wits Vice-Chancellor Professor Loyiso Nongxa said in a statement that academic activities were sacrosanct at universities, and while Wits recognised the right to peaceful protests, the rights of students who wished to continue attending classes also had to be respected.

"We should learn how to disagree in a way that respects differences and does not violate the rights of others who hold different views," Nongxa said, adding that Wits would take "swift disciplinary action" against people contravening its code of conduct.

An interdict was obtained by Wits restraining students from disrupting teaching, obstructing or preventing movement through the campus, harassing or intimidating people or damaging property. "This means that should the students continue to disrupt the academic programme, they can be arrested and held in contempt of court," said Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel.

Sasco President Mawethu Rune told the press that students had felt "harassed" by the court interdict, but had resolved to suspend protests and would refer unresolved issues to the council, which will meet in the first week of October.

"All our energies are now put on engaging council members and helping them see the rationale upon which our demands are [based]," said Rune.

The students and management agreed to draw up mechanisms to address individual cases of students who cannot afford to pay full fees.

A consensus to raise allowances for students on financial aid from R1,500 to R2,000 (US$202 to $270) per quarter was also agreed. But according to the Wits, this means that fewer financial aid packages for first year students will be available in 2010.

The parties agreed in principle to convene review committees to deal with issues raised by students such as the fee structure and the effectiveness of the student bus transport system.

At the University of Pretoria there were calls by the Student Front - comprising Sasco, YCL, ANC Youth League and Pan-African Student Movement of Azania - for the students' representative council structure to be changed to include political party representation.

Annual student elections were to be held on 8 September at the formerly white Afrikaans university. But the Student Front organised protests, saying the elections were being run apartheid-style and were not a reflection of student representation at large.

Students disrupted the ballot by overturning election tables. There were reports of assaults on students and staff. Protesting students also disrupted classes and presented a memorandum to dean of students Professor McGlory Speckman and acting Vice-chancellor Professor Chris de Beer. Police had to be called in to keep an eye on the situation.

De Beer said in a statement that the university agreed to suspend the election temporarily as it considered the safety of staff and students more important. A court order was granted on 14 September, prohibiting disruptive or provocative behaviour on campus.

De Beer said Pretoria regretted the behaviour of protesting students, and that intimidation and violence were not acceptable ways of resolving problems. Discussions will be held between management and students on student governance and a proposal on restructuring the SRC will be put to the council.

"We hope the suspension of the elections will give us an opportunity to have the situation addressed, YCL spokesperson Gugu Ndima told University World News.