Alet Janse van Rensburg

When reason leaves the building

2017-03-20 13:14

Provisions to include academically deserving students, made.

2017-03-08 07:37

The funding troubles faced by South African universities continue to be of great concern following the 2015 and 2016 #FeesMustFall student movements. WATCH

This past weekend would’ve seen a historic event take place as all the important stakeholders in higher education got together to discuss solutions to the ongoing challenges in the sector.

The convention, which was to take place at the Eskom Centre for Advanced Learning in Midrand, was convened by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, and a number of other elders and respected figures such as former Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, writer and expert in African indigenous knowledge systems, Prof. Pitika Ntuli, former minister under President Nelson Mandela and founding Secretary General of Cosatu, Jay Naidoo, businessman and Chairman of Telkom SA, Jabu Mabuza and Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, to name but a few.

Few people know that this forum played a vital role in dissolving the tension on campuses last year, through highly sensitive talks with student leaders, university managements and government, including President Jacob Zuma.

It was the coming together of some of the most respected members of our society in one of our country’s darkest hours to say, “Enough. Enough now. We have to talk.”

Over the course of months after the violence ended, the forum worked with stakeholders to prepare for what would culminate in the past weekend’s event. Provincial conventions were held in all nine provinces and every possible student organisation was included.

So when proceedings started on Saturday morning, everyone was on board. Everyone from university vice chancellors, to student deans, SRC representatives, student organisations, including every political faction, parents, government, the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, church representatives, the Human Rights Commission, Statistics South Africa, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Public Protector’s office, the banking and business sectors, and the electoral commission attended.

Everyone agreed on the collective mandate: to use the safe space created to debate and negotiate what is necessary for the country to move forward and the higher education sector to survive. Everyone would have a turn to speak and say their piece and everyone’s input would be valued and considered.

As Moseneke said, it was the who’s who of higher education.

And so it was an utter disappointment to see months of highly sensitive work behind the scenes go up in smoke when angry students disrupted the convention before it could even get started.

The plenary had barely begun when students started shouting down speakers, booing with every mention of Nzimande’s name, demanding white people to leave and threatening to set the venue on fire. It ended with chairs flying, water bottles thrown at people, and sound and lighting equipment being knocked over. The vice chancellors fled for safety and the minister’s security team had to hasten him out.

Despite Moseneke’s calls for calm and discipline and respect, it seemed as if nothing got through to the students and that nothing is off limits when reason leaves the building. Student leaders plead with their factions to allow everyone a chance to speak, as was agreed upon prior to the event, to no avail. The rest of the crowd sat and watched helplessly as proceedings unravelled.

Finally, the convention was cancelled for safety reasons. Some students who drove fifteen hours by bus from the Eastern Cape collected their sponsored lunch bags and headed for their buses.

Afterwards blame was shifted for who was responsible for the disruption. The different political factions all blamed each other. I personally saw a small group of EFF students refusing to calm down when Nzimande started speaking and eventually breaking through a barrier formed by ushers to charge the stage where he was speaking from.

Whether it was mob mentality or a deliberate plan to upset proceedings, what cannot be denied is that a golden opportunity has been squandered by poor discipline, an utter lack of respect for other people and zero regard for the every effort made by the stakeholders to come to a resolution.

The angry students claimed they were tired of listening to the same conversations without coming to a solution, but why then did they agree to the format of the convention? Why not boycott it? Why come all the way only to disrupt the exercise?

It is my feeling that it is a chronic ailment of the students to not be able to see the forest for the trees; that they get sidetracked by the smallest issue, and that they do not know how to pick their battles. There is no way that every problem in the sector will be solved overnight, but they refuse to accept this. As if the plight of the student is the only one of importance in our country. For all that they have achieved, their youthful naivety has let them down sorely in this regard.

Perhaps the convenors should’ve had the foresight to know that the students can’t bare the sight of Adam Habib, or that the presence of Nzimande would set them off completely. They had good intentions bringing them there, but it ended up being a disaster that we might still not have seen the full extent of. Let’s hope that the violence of the weekend does not spill over onto campuses as students build momentum to restart the FeesMustFall movement.

- Janse van Rensburg is opinions editor of News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    higher education  |  feesmustfall


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