Varsities to stay shut amid uncertainty over protests

Johannesburg – Several universities across the country have elected to remain shut on Monday following uncertainty over ongoing fee protests.

Three petrol bombs were found on the University of the Witwatersrand's Braamfontein campus over the weekend. Wits, the University of Cape Town, and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, would be shut on Monday.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said on Sunday that the institute's senior executive team would meet on Monday to consider its options.

They were hopeful that the year's academic programme would be completed. Where necessary, contingency plans would be formulated to ensure this.

The university would issue an update on its plans on Monday.

Patel said police were investigating the petrol bombs found on campus on Saturday. Insurance companies had already replaced windows and doors damaged during protests last week, Patel said.

Protests

Students across the country demonstrated last week, calling for the immediate implementation of free quality education.

The recent wave of protests – some violent – were in reaction to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on Monday that universities could hike their fees by up to 8% for next year. Poor students would not have to pay any fee increase.

Patel said between 200 to 800 students were involved in protests at Wits. Thirty-three of them were arrested and released last week. The university had 36 600 students and 5 000 staff.

She said that the university was facing a "backlash" from these non-protesting students, staff, and alumni, who wanted to get on with their work. Wits was determined to cater to the needs of this "silent majority".

"We are extremely concerned about the willingness of some students and academics to sacrifice Wits and the future of our students for a political fight that is truly meant to be directed elsewhere," the university said in a separate statement issued on Sunday.

According to the statement, posted on the university’s website, police should be blamed for the lack of control of violence during protests last week.

"In most societies, appropriately trained police will address the situation in a non-violent way. We cannot rely on the response of the police in our country and this is the primary problem."

Security guards

Patel said security only began to "fracture" last Monday because police were not arresting students. When they did, they were releasing them shortly afterwards. She said private security companies were struggling to keep up with the demand to help out on campuses. This meant fewer well-trained security guards were being deployed.

Subsequently these guards threw stones back at students who attacked them outside the Great Hall on the East Campus on Tuesday.

"The throwing of stones by anyone is unacceptable and we are further investigating this incident," Patel said.

The University of Cape Town would suspend classes for another week, from Monday to Friday.

"All staff are to continue operations during this time. UCT libraries will be closed. The Vice-Chancellor will send a more detailed communication shortly," it said.

A previous agreement led to university work being suspended from Thursday until Sunday this week. In that time, the library, including the 24/7 study area, and the bus shuttle were not available.

'Drastic measures'

On Friday, NMMU announced it would suspend operations on Monday.

"The university may be compelled to implement drastic measures going forward, including possibly suspending lectures until we can guarantee the safety of all our students and staff," it said in a statement.

It would announce further plans before the close of business on Monday. Four different petitions were handed to the university’s management on Friday and it was spending the weekend drawing up responses to them.

The universities of Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal both elected to open their doors on Monday.

UP spokesperson Anna-Retha Bouwer said security had been strict and the university was doing everything in its power to ensure the academic programme continued without disruption and that staff and students were safe.

University of KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said they had bolstered security measures.

According to Stellenbosch University’s last update on Friday, classes and tests on the main campus would continue as scheduled.

At its Tygerberg campus, all undergraduate academic activities were postponed on Friday. It was not immediately clear what the plan was for the week ahead.

North West University's spokesperson Kiewiet Scheppel could not immediately be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, the DA in a statement issued on Sunday called on police, government, and university management to work together to ensure all campuses could remain open in the coming week.

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