Another meeting between the concerned representative constituencies took place at Rhodes University’s Eden Grove building at noon on Tuesday the 27 September, regarding the #FeesMustFall protests and free education discussions. The meeting was livestreamed by the Oppidan Press. In addressing the demands of the student body, handed over to the university management last week, the constituent groups consisted of:
1. Concerned staff
2. Student media
3. Student Representative Council (SRC) members
4. The FeesMustFall (FMF) committee
5. Members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and
6. University management, including Vice Chancellor Dr. Sizwe Mabizela
Before the meeting could continue on from the previous day’s discussion, a concerned NEHAWU member asked to address the police presence that was then currently on the university campus, stating that he could not continue being present while students were at risk.
Representative students from the FMF committee responded to the chair’s de-escalation of the current campus situation by saying that police have no right to be on campus, pleading that management commit to this demand from students.
Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the university’s vice-chancellor, said that “dining halls are being invaded and kitchen staff are being taken out of them.” He reiterated that “this is unacceptable” and “an infringement on the rights of staff and students.” Mabizela stated that the police presence was not for no reason, and they were on campus because of the infringement of rights placed upon staff and students.
He then stated that a commitment by all to respect the rights of the staff and students of this university would negate any need for police to be on campus. A proposal from the floor asked that each constituency elect a representative to leave the meeting, observe the campus situation, and report back to the meeting. Those present agreed and once the elected had left, the meeting proceeded to address the students’ demands.
Police On Campus
Addressing the presence of police on campus, the concerned staff constituency expressed a reminder that police respond to criminal activity, and it may very well be out of the management’s power to control when police enter campus. SRC members stated that there is a lack of trust that disengages students from management. Furthermore, it was mentioned that these trust issues – linked to police being on campus – are a cause for why discussions never seem to find resolve.
Regarding the shutdown of the academic programme, both the representative Deans and university management hold the constitution as the highest guidance of policy. However, they emphasised their support for both their staff and their academics, stressing that both parties have every right to make a legal statement if they feel their rights are being violated.
Economics lecturer David Fryer questioned the legalistic tendencies that have blurred the lines in understanding campus disruptions: “Is disrupting a lecture the same as destroying property?” Fryer added that the VC was confronting police as well, yet we single out certain individuals nonetheless.
Fryer concluded by stating that the disparity exists in needing a far deeper explanation of management’s response, one involving a fleshing-out and clarifying both the benefit of all parties.
Leila Kidson asked for clarity on behalf of student media in three areas, namely: clarity on what intimidation constitutes, clarity on the boundaries of the interdict, and clarity on what student media can report on without indicting students.
SRC agrees to the demands that no student be prosecuted under the interdict, but stressed two points, namely that students have a responsibility as well and that the university needs to understand that student protest action is a last resort.
A FMF representative discussed the engagement between management and the student body as criminalising of students: “Where we wanted to come together to fight this fight, all I’m hearing is ‘I represent this, I represent this, I represent this,’ and it’s criminalising students.”
Concerned Staff speak
A member of the concerned staff responded in agreement by saying that assumptions around violence are a cause of concern. He urged management to question what constitutes violence, adding that systemic violence has been committed for decades, and individual acts of violence should thus be seen as responses to this systemic violence. However, he stressed that the issue is violence out of context, not violence in general.
The concerned staff constituency thus supported demand number 12, and pleaded that this meeting find a guidance framework for what is considered acceptable protest.
The FMF constituency followed by accusing management of dishonest engagement, and for criminalising black students: “If management is going to have an honest conversation, they should say who they’re criminalising, who they’re targeting, and who the law leans towards. It’s not white students protesting, it’s the black working class students that are protesting, and they are being criminalised.”
NTEU and NEHAWU’s Concerns
NTEU representatives expressed concern that their working-class staff is not represented enough. NEHAWU responded saying that they cannot attend a meeting where they are not afforded the opportunity to put their members’ mandates on the table. The Chair addressed both, as well as the floor in general, that each constituency is being afforded a fair representation in this meeting. A suggestion was made that a recess be taken.
The Chair then proceeded to appeal to all delegations that “we are all losers if we walk out of this room without reaching a consensus. We’re all in this mess together.”
In continuing the discussion, the FMF addressed the need for management to account for the images taken by police that are enabling the targeting of individual students. They posited a suggestion for a solution to the disrupting of dining halls to be the closing of dining halls, referencing their formal closure during previous protests. Furthermore, they expressed their concern with the reaction of bureaucracy to what management deems “violence.” FMF concluded with a call for decisiveness, saying that “these meetings are going around in circles. We need to move forward somewhere. I need concrete commitment that they police won’t knock on my door tomorrow.”
FMF and SRC walk out
Frustrated with the meeting’s proceedings, and with Mabizela’s comments of the university’s alleged lack-of-clarity in spelling-out the bounds of the “legal protection” it sets itself out to provide to its students and staff, members of the FMF and SRC representative constituencies walked out of the meeting. With the remaining constituencies present, and only two remaining SRC members, Mabizela continued his point. Those watching the live-stream of the meeting called for students to respect Mabizela, and listen to him speak. Mabizela continued nevertheless.
The University and the Law
Mabizela spoke on the legalities that bind the university, and emphasised his earlier points that the university is respecting the rights of all parties. The Chair proposed that Mabizela be the final speaker. However, David Fryer pleaded that students be asked to return. He explained their reaction as warranted given that this is a crisis. Fryer asked that the meeting be saved, and that the students left because “all they heard was ‘the law is the law.’” Leila Kidson asked for a point of clarity, regarding whether students will now be arrested. The Vice Chancellor responded that they would not be, and that students have a constitutional right to protest peacefully within the bounds of law. The meeting was then concluded for recess. Comments on the live-stream continue to ask one question: “What are the bounds of law?”
Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education. Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit www.ru.ac.za/rucoronavirusgateway to donate