The institution has suspended classes and ordered students to vacate its premises amid rising tension over exclusion and indifference
The University of Fort Hare has suspended its academic programme indefinitely, following weeks of mass protests by students.
On Thursday, university management told students in all its three campuses – Alice, Bhisho and East London – to vacate its premises by 6pm.
This followed a stand-off between university management and students over issues including academic exclusion and a number of deaths that have occurred at the university recently.
Students laid the blame squarely at the door of professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the principal and vice-chancellor of the university. The students want him to be fired from the institution.
On Tuesday, student leaders met the portfolio committee on higher education and training in Parliament to table their grievances.
Mihla Hanise, student representative council (SRC) at the main campus in Alice, said students were justified in calling for Buhlungu to step down.
“The call is genuine from the side of the students. His silence on burning issues is raising concerns, hence the students are saying the man must go. Remember, this is a vice-chancellor who does not attend the funerals of students. He does even not institute any investigation into the deaths of students.
“We have a vice-chancellor who implemented financial exclusion on students without proper consultation of stakeholders. Logic dictates that students call for a reasonable cause to say that if he is not willing to come and converse with us, then he has to leave the institution,” charged Hanise.
However, Khotso Moabi, marketing and communications manager at Fort Hare, said calls for Buhlungu to step down were hasty.
“I think these calls are unwarranted and little bit premature. The university and the vice-chancellor have implemented all the recommendations that came from the department of higher education and training, so on what basis are people requesting his resignation?” he asked. Moabi confirmed that the university had shut down and requested students to vacate its residences.
“This has come after a continual protest by students. [For] a week and a half we have had staff being intimidated and the community being disrupted. There has been looting and we felt that, safety-wise, it was better for us to suspend the academic programme,” he said.
Hanise, however, said the students were not deterred by the management’s decision to suspend the academic programme.
“They can’t do that without a court order. We are trying to assemble a legal team that is going to assist us in the process … but what we foresee is that we are going to be victimised, whether the court order is there or not,” he said.
Hanise said the two week-long protests were triggered by a registration process that financially excluded students through requiring them to clear their debts before they could register.
“That is why we were summoned by the portfolio committee on higher education, which wanted us to inform it of what was happening so that it could intervene. Unfortunately we have not received anything from them yet,” he said.
In a mass meeting on Wednesday, Hanise said that, when the students returned from Cape Town, they decided that while waiting for intervention from the committee they would not go back to class, which led to the university shutting down because it was aware that the students would not attend classes anyway.
He said their report to the portfolio committee was around issues of teaching and learning, registration and enrolment, as well as the recent deaths of students and accommodation.
Hanise said there were about 3 000 returning students being excluded, with 2 000 more who were due for graduation this year also in limbo. He alleged that the university insisted that students reduce their debts to at least R10 000.
“It’s a lot of money. The largest debt from the database is R1.3 million for a single student who is doing a PhD. And they are required to reduce their debt to R10 000 overnight. It does not make any sense,” he said.
Moabi said management fundamentally disagreed with the students’ demand for the university to “register one, register all”, which would lead to the financial collapse of the institution.
“We cannot accede to that demand,” he said.
Although he could not confirm how long the academic programme would be suspended, Moabi said they anticipated the stalemate to last for about a week, with about 17 000 registered students’ futures hanging in the balance.
“It’s indefinite at this point ... In the meantime, we continue to be open to discussions and negotiations with the SRC. We are also going to have internal meetings to assess the situation and try to find a resolution to all the issues on the table,” he assured.
Moabi said he could not comment on the matter before the portfolio committee, only saying that: “[Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande] supports the current position of the university.”
On Friday, University of Fort Hare President of Convocation Solomzi Tshona confirmed that the students had brought an urgent application to the East London High Court to interdict the university from evicting them: “The vice-chancellor should sit down with those he is leading to get to a solid resolution ... [Opting] to evict students is not going to be a solution,” he said.
Tshona lamented the fact that students coming from as far as Limpopo, Mpumalanga and many from Zimbabwe were expected to pack up and leave. He said the situation at Fort Hare proved that the institution had not planned ahead for this year.
“You can’t exclude 3 000 students, most of them [in their] second year and final year.”
City Press understands that the court granted an interdict barring the university form evicting the students yesterday.
However, Moabi could not verify this at the time of publishing.