Convinced that university students are being influenced by “regime change agents”, government has instructed the police to act in an “uncompromising way” to enforce the law if protests continue.According to feedback given to senior security officials, President Jacob Zuma told ministers in a meeting, held on Thursday, that there was an urgent need to bring the violence under control.Zuma said this was necessary before the academic year came to an end to avoid a far worse security situation at the beginning of next year. Such a scenario would see new matriculants struggle to secure admission space if current first-year students did not write their exams and, as a result, would have to repeat classes.Universities South Africa, the organisation representing the country’s tertiary institutions, this week said the damage to universities was currently running at more than R600m.According to the minutes of Thursday’s meeting, which City Press has seen, in terms of the new security plan, police were expected to “enforce the laws of the country in an uncompromising manner” – and “the criminal justice system should create strong examples of how the law deals with people who venture into acts of vandalism, intimidation and violence”.Multiprovincial police task forceThe security directive goes on to state: “Evidence should be gathered in a manner that links specific individuals to specific transgressions for ease of prosecution.” Government is set to establish a multiprovincial police task force to deal more effectively with the protests.State Security Minister David Mahlobo told a media briefing, held on Friday, that in the case of hard evidence, those involved in violence should receive a “maximum sentence” in terms of the law.“Because if we do not do that, this kind of lawlessness is going to continue. These individuals are very few, [so] they cannot continue to intimidate our people,” he said.Mahlobo added that student leaders were trying to exercise leadership, but there were “other people” introducing the violence. “There is an agitation and provocation of the police there.”A comprehensive communication strategy would also be developed and “specifically take the propaganda war to the social media space”.On Friday, a series of meetings was held at the Protea Hotel at OR Tambo International Airport, attended by directors-general in the security cluster, public order police officials, students’ representatives council (SRC) presidents and secretaries, representatives of institutions of higher learning and security cluster communicators.At Friday’s media briefing, following the marathon of meetings, the ministers – including Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, Mahlobo, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimade – presented a joint statement with student leaders, detailing how they planned to restore stability to tertiary institutions.'Subtle threats'However, some of the student representatives attending the meetings openly disagreed with the statement and described the proceedings as “a waste of time”. Others said the ministers had made “subtle threats” during the discussions.Students said the ministers were given adequate time to talk, while they were told to speak very briefly. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the brutality used by private security and police, as well as the lack of engagement from vice-chancellors and with the notion of a third force.At the meeting Nzimande was quoted as saying what had “started as a progressive campaign – as #FeesMustFall – has now become counter-revolutionary”. Mahlobo told students who attended the meeting that there were people working hard to “hijack your issues as young people”. “We need to be able to clamp down. Academics who are trying to pretend they are advising or mentoring outside the elected structures of the SRC are trying to mobilise and mentor people for other interests,” he said.Nhleko told the media that acting national police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane would bring in provincial police commissioners to assist in forming a “firm plan” to protect public and private property, as well as students and members of the public. But he was quick to add that government recognised “the legitimacy of the issues”.“In pursuit of this noble undertaking, the [security cluster] wishes to emphasise that acts of violence, intimidation and destruction of property will not be tolerated,” Nhleko said.According to records of the meeting held between Zuma and his ministers on Thursday, police were warned to avoid “scenes of people being dragged on the ground”.Nhleko said police were expected to act with maximum restraint at all times and to ensure that their conduct was always beyond reproach.“We appeal equally to the students to work with our law enforcement in ensuring that these protests are peaceful,” the minister said.'Under attack by agitators'Mahlobo said South Africa was, like other countries, under attack because of the geopolitics that govern the world at large.He added that in the meeting, they discussed the scenario of the country coming under attack by agitators. In their efforts to change the government in an unconstitutional way, these insurgents would use controversial issues – such as the student fees protests – to mobilise communities to side with them.“Education – an important issue that this government has made as an apex priority – is a societal issue and resonates with everybody,” he said.Mahlobo told City Press that the majority of students had agreed to resume their academic programmes, but there were “a few individuals intimidating the majority because of their ability to be vociferous”.He said students would be assisted to pick out individuals and entities “disguised as people that are going to provide support”.He added that although nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) were important in any democracy, the way in which they functioned was crucial.“We must ask why we have a proliferation of NGOs from other countries. In [some] instances, they come in a disguise, like they are helping,” he said.“Students are vulnerable. Someone comes and gives them airtime or puts certain monies into their accounts [and] unsuspectingly, they think they [these individuals] are genuine.”A key part of government’s plan was to heighten communication about the situation at tertiary institutions, he said.This involved government officials engaging with communicators “to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of South Africa”.Communicators were told to “emphasise the message that people have the right to protest peacefully in a lawful manner”.Mahlobo said it was equally important to stress the message that it was the state’s duty to defend those students who wished to continue with their academic courses.Tomorrow the president will meet with stakeholders, including students, in an imbizo to seek solutions to challenges facing the country’s higher education institutions.On Friday the vice-chancellors of universities issued a joint statement of appeal, requesting that everything possible be done to avoid shutdowns.“The current academic year must be allowed to take its normal course to the end while we all search for a lasting solution,” they said.