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Backlash from staff and alumni against UCT executive

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University receives PAIA request, and two petitions calling for it to open

Photo of protest action on UCT
Protesters hurl a large set of bins at private security guards protecting the main UCT library yesterday. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks
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Students, staff and alumni concerned by the continued shut down of the University of Cape Town (UCT) are putting the institution’s executive under pressure to open.

Nearly all face-to-face teaching at the university has stopped. This afternoon, the libraries were closed and the shuttle service suspended following violent incidents on campus.

Student and staff petition

A petition calling for the university to open, signed by over 1,300 members of the university including over 500 staff, was sent to Vice-Chancellor Max Price.

Associate Professor Shamil Jeppe, one of the signatories, told GroundUp: “The university is a place of learning, teaching and research. Protests can [take place]. But these activities must continue else we throw the whole institution and our intellectual project into serious jeopardy.”

Another signatory, Professor Imraan Coovadia, told GroundUp: “We have a video [from today] of a man being beaten and his life being endangered. They [members of UCT’s executive] are letting ordinary men and women take the brunt of the assault. Students and professors are being threatened. They cannot manage the situation. There is no doubt that this executive cannot pursue the policies necessary to restore order at the university.”

Professor Michelle Kuttel informed Price of the petition in an email several days ago, and again today. She wrote to Price today: “I have yet to receive any sort of response to our petition … “.

She further wrote:

“This video of an unprovoked brutal attack on a security guard this afternoon clearly shows prominent ‘protesters’ again involved in violence. Why are they allowed to do this serially? There should be more than enough evidence for charges against them. Have you thought about the possible consequences if other students or staff are caught in the crossfire? Not to mention the potential for abuse (especially of women) in the current lawless environment in the residences.”

Kuttel said: “Is it your intention to drive a large swathe of staff to quit UCT? Because that is what will happen. We are totally demoralised and appalled at the current situation. Many of us are pursuing other employment options.”

In a strongly worded email to Price, Samuel Chetty of UCT’s Computer Science Department wrote: “I have to add my voice to the gross lack of leadership that I have witnessed thus far. I have not witnessed the anarchy and mayhem that is currently playing out since the 1980s. I have to attribute this to your style of leadership that has set this institution back into the age of the bygone years.”

Alumni petition

Meanwhile UCT alumnus Judith February started a petition for alumni yesterday. It has over 500 signatories. It states:

“A shut down is antithetical to the very idea of a university and it is fundamentally undemocratic for a small group to hold an entire university to hostage. We note the UCT statement of 18 October 2016 that sets forth the basis for engagement with protesting students to ensure the academic year is completed. One of the bases is, ‘Possible amnesty to the students who have been interdicted, suspended or expelled due to their involvement in the February Shackville protests.’ It is very difficult to understand why amnesty should be considered for criminal actions specifically given the disruptions on campus over the past two days. It is also puzzling why this specific group of protesters is treated differently to other students who have been sanctioned. The only reason could be that they are holding the university hostage and bullying it into submission. The protesters have shown that they are willing to place the interests of individual student leaders, charged with criminal activity above the interests of thousands of other students, staff and support staff.”

Request for names and affiliations of protesters negotiating with UCT

And in a further development, a staff member in UCT libraries, William Daniels, has sent a Promotion of Access to Information Act request to the university asking it to provide “full names and surnames and faculty affiliations of the individual FeesMustFall/ShackvilleTRC/SRC Candidates representatives with whom the vice-chancellor and the Special Executive Task Team have been negotiating during September and October 2016.”

“I think it is important that UCT’s 26,000 students know the identities of the individuals purporting to represent them and who have been granted recognition by the university executive,” wrote Daniels.

He sent the request after Judith du Toit in the vice-chancellor’s office responded to Daniels’s original email requesting this information: “Thanks for the suggestion. It is a complicated situation and would likely be seen as victimisation and bullying.”

UCT response

Asked to comment on why Price had not responded to the staff and student petition, and why the names of the people the university is negotiating with have not been made available, Patricia Lucas in UCT’s Communications and Marketing Department wrote to GroundUp:

“Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price has received hundreds of letters and emails from a wide range of people with a wide range of concerns. Unfortunately he has not been able to respond to all of them individually. Instead, he has addressed the issues they have raised through various VC Desk communications to the campus community, particularly with regards to the engagements with multiple stakeholders and the call for reopening the campus.”

Lucas further wrote: “UCT is investigating every reported instance of attack on security staff. We appeal to anyone with information on these attacks to phone Campus Protection Services on 021 650 2222, or the SA Police Service (SAPS). Public order policing has been provided on campus today by SAPS.”

She also said: “The libraries were closed and the shuttle service suspended to facilitate a plenary session that was agreed between protesting students and the UCT executive. Other services on campus, such as the computer labs, should still be open.”

Protesters’ statements

A statement earlier today on student protest group Shackville TRC 2016’s Facebook page said: “Private Security has violently beaten students at upper campus. The situation has been escalated. The University of Cape Town and the state have declared war.”

A further statement from the group said: “Police are now on the campus with Private Security. Steve Biko Building remains available as a safe haven from state and institutional violence.”

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Write a letter in response to this article

Letters

Dear Editor

I cannot convey the emotions that this video has elicited: on the one hand I am appalled at the violence that our students are capable of. On the other I am saddened beyond belief that we have created a society where our youth feel the need to behave this way.

Please will the adults in this country stand up and lead. Things do not have to descend into anarchy - there are other more beneficial ways of dealing with this pain. The first step is to acknowledge it - please will someone in our so called government stand up and acknowledge that we have failed dismally in providing our youth with a future, and promise that this will be addressed with the seriousness it deserves. How can the president of a country, whose youth have to resort to this type of behaviour, justify demanding a presidential jet, an unnecessary nuclear build, support for four wives and 20+ children and control of the Treasury etc? Where is the leadership with regard to developing our people? That requires investment in education, housing, sanitation and job creation. The vast majority of people living in South Africa want it to work and want to help but do not know how because our leaders do not have a coherent plan.

And yes the privileged whiteys also want SA to succeed and ALL our people to have a reasonable standard of living and every opportunity to reach their potential. It makes me sick to see my tax money spent on enrichment of a few at the expense of the poor.

Dear Editor

I wish to voice my frustration at the responses coming in from mainstream detractors of what is happening at our universities. It seems to me that very few within society are willing to acknowledge that students have legitimate grievances that requires closer scrutiny.

The hard issues are being left to government to resolve like education, housing, employment etc. even while the main body politic incessantly seeks to hold government to a higher standard on matters relating to corruption, state capture etc.

When Rome finally burns it will be because those privileged enough to have been able to make a positive contribution to SA society abdicated their responsibilities to the youth of our country and chose instead to do their damnest to preserve their privileges.

Dear Editor

For nearly six weeks now a group of students have occupied UCT Hiddingh campus, sleeping and living there, refusing anyone access to workshops to do practical assignments.

Nothing has been done to evict them. They are squatters, recognised as such by law. Yet no one has stopped them from using their new 'digs' to harass students and staff, post threatening messages on Facebook, and put signs on the respective workshops housing equipment worth thousands of rands warning staff and students not to enter.

How is this possible? What about those who have battled and sacrificed to make their children's dreams come true by studying at Hiddingh? How will this years' 4th year students present final works of art at a standard good enough to pass them in 5 weeks time? How will drama students access the theatres and stages that they need to pass? Why would staff want to work here next year (assuming the university has a next year)?
Most of those occupying the campus are post graduate students, their undergraduate education a thing of the past (some are masters students) high on control, pulling the strings of a weak and ineffectual VC and Senate who for some unthinkable reason refuse to go to court to get them evicted and take back the campus.

This university - once the number one ranked in SA - is collapsing. Its plain for all to see. Silent diplomacy.....look what that did for Thabo Mbeki. Its doing the same for UCT.

Dear Editor

It is almost impossible for those of us far removed from current events at UCT to comment on them. I am sure that I speak for others in saying that we are proud to be graduates of a great university with an unrivalled record of independent intellectual inquiry and achievement and a proven ability to meet challenges and adapt to radical change.

The petition from staff and students reflects the almost intolerably conflicting pressures under which those guiding the university are acting. Recent events at universities throughout South Africa, and at UCT in particular, are a negation of the whole idea of a university and a cause for grave concern. UCT’s response deserves admiration for the way it is continuing to strive to remain true to its core ethos.

The very heavy stress this imposes on the university’s staff, both academic and administrative, and the majority of its students must be all but unbearable. Whatever the outcome, they should take comfort from being upholders of a very great tradition.