We have seen many frightening, exhilarating and liberating things over the last few months in South Africa. Student protests have swept the country and grabbed international attention for pushing back against an unjust and exploitative economic model. Since the announcement that there will be a 0% hike in student fees in 2016, some campuses have quietened down, while others have continued to protest. It is not over.
At Stellenbosch University, protesting students have dissipated, but they have not disappeared. They know that there is still a lot to be done, and that the road ahead won’t be easy. These are not naïve children, and yet they are treated like they are exactly that. Universities face serious budget cuts due to the deficits they are no longer able to cover with an exorbitant fee hike. Some would blame the students for bringing this disaster upon them. Nobody denies that the problem lies with government funding of universities, but even so we don’t see too many of the staff joining the students in protests for free education. Why are so many staff members and university management sitting back and throwing their hands up instead of joining protesters in exerting pressure upon the government? It must be nice when your children can study mahala. It must be nice when the status quo is in your favour.
Over and over again we see words, but no action to back it up. Instead we see contradictions and hypocrisies everywhere. At a meeting for staff shortly after the events on campus of October 19 to 23, Stellenbosch University Rector Professor Wim de Villiers commended Stellenbosch students for the disciplined and peaceful way in which they protested. Despite these encouraging words, and his pride in preceding President Jacob Zuma’s announcement of a 0% increase in fees in 2016, the actions of other integral parts of university management have undermined his message. Students have taken on the rector and his management team about this very issue when an interdict was served against those who occupied Admin B on Monday October 19. Repeated promises of open channels of communication have proven disappointing and misleading, and the interdict was a violent reminder of the university management’s willingness to use the power at its disposal to remove what it perceives as a threat.
On Thursday October 22 I was in the crowd of protesters moving around campus. Many do not understand how I could join in the disruption of study sessions when I myself have taught, and continue to be involved with, students. But I could not in any universe have attended university without the help of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), and later the National Research Foundation. There are many who are much more deserving and who face far worse struggles than mine who cannot attend university even with the help of NSFAS. Not to have been in that crowd would have been treachery. It hurts to have to explain this so many times. It hurts to know that those who are supposed to have students’ interests at the top of their list of priorities do not care much for us at all.
That night campus security refused to walk me and my friend home because they were too busy “dealing with the violent student protests”. No matter how hard we explained that we were protesters and it really wasn’t violent at all, it didn’t help. In fact, it made it worse. They made us, two women, walk home alone. Campus security and facilities management has since repeatedly informed me that I cannot reach the appropriate person to lay a complaint with because he has been really busy dealing with the “violent” student protests.
On Monday, November 9, after reports of a planned mass meeting on campus by workers union Nehawu, the now-notorious Blacksuits, members of (to the best of my knowledge) an unknown private security company hired by management to beef up campus security, were stationed prominently in front of key buildings, most notably those occupied by the arts and social sciences. Staff access to these buildings was also removed for a short while during the day. Students are now forced to sign in and identify themselves with student cards at exams, and there are security guards stationed at each examination building. This hardly makes the examination process a less stressful one for students or staff. The presence of these huge men dressed in black, often wearing slick black sunglasses, creates a space that oozes violence. Meanwhile, staff are complaining that management makes unilateral decisions without consulting them, and factions have arisen between those who sympathise with the student cause and those who do not.
The result is an atmosphere on campus that is tense and unwelcoming. Management has made it a hostile environment for anyone who doesn’t keep their head down and carry on. Instead of creating a space of free engagement in active and meaningful conversation, they have created a community of distrust. Students don’t trust staff, staff don’t trust students, students don’t trust one another, staff same same. Nobody trusts the police or the Blacksuits except the old guard. University management has shown itself willing to pull the trigger when the target moves. In fear of student protests, management itself has turned to violence.
There’s that word again. Violence. They commend students for protesting peacefully, and yet they line the streets with police officers and Buffels and Blacksuits. They lock the doors of academic buildings at the slightest indication of a mass gathering. They force students to continue writing their exams despite the hostile environment they have created on campus, and despite the obvious stress of being unable to afford to return next year — a concern students have tried on various levels to help them understand. It is clear that student safety and student well-being is not university management’s primary concern. They are too focused on institutional integrity to realise that there is no integrity without a safe, well-integrated, politically active, and above all just campus community. They are not owed respectability politics, and it will only last so long before the tension gets too high.