On Friday the 29th of October 2015, I received a call from the office of the chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, Arch Bishop Thabo Makgoba, who is also the patron of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, which I chair, requesting my presence in a meeting held at the office of the rector of UWC.
Having listened to his brief, we then met with the SRC and heard the President of the SRC narrating what transpired at UWC from late September during the SRC elections, through the “Fees Must Fall” campaign which overtook South African universities.
The Arch Bishop requested that we be allowed to break and come back at 3pm for more engagement.
When we arrived at 3pm, the university was a war zone, students breaking every breakable thing in and around the admin block.
I spent the next hour or so with very angry students at the student residence while the chancellor was upstairs with the visibly shaken SRC.
The student gathering took the form of a mass meeting, with hundreds of children singing and making speeches. While standing on the sidelines, I was asked by the student leadership who recognized me because of my prior engagement with them a week earlier, to say something to them.
At this stage I was alerted to the arrival of the SAPS and a large contingent of private security personnel.
All together, their very presence heightened the tensions among the students and caused a great deal of panic and pandemonium.
It worried me when some students started calling for war and seemed excited by the prospect of it. I advised the student leadership to persuade the rest of the masses to agree to hand the memorandum which they allege, they have been waiting eight days to hand to the VC.
Their anger seemed to have been around this refusal by the VC to meet with them and receive their list of grievances and demands.
Once there was consensus, I then walked up to the police and informed them that the students have agreed to hand their memorandum to the chancellor. After a very tense 30 to 45 minutes of hostilities and exchange of harsh words between the police and the students, the chancellor finally arrived and sat down with the students, a gesture which opened up to a conversation between the chancellor and the angry students. They read the memorandum and the chancellor received and responded to the students, promising them that he will meet with the management and encourage them to respond promptly. The students stood down and announced that they will give the management until 13:00 the following day to respond. A possible catastrophe was avoided by this intervention.
I went back to the offices of the VC and sat for about and hour, during which time, the VC came up to me and asked what happened. I narrated some of what transpired and then he hurriedly walked up to his office and did not come back.
Clearly he was under tremendous amount of pressure and inundated with calls, concerned people, parents, political leaders wanting to know what was going on. Unfortunately we never finished that conversation.
The next time we spoke was the following day on the phone when I called him, pleading that some intervention is urgently needed. By then, paramedics had arrived at the university, an even bigger contingent of private security personnel, students were under siege.
I offered, as the chancellor had mandated me to, to convene a meeting with him and the student leadership in a private, safe place, but he felt that the students had conducted themselves dishonorably and he was not ready to meet with them.
He asked me to give him 30 minutes to craft a response to their memorandum, which he would then forward to the head of the University security head who in turn would pass on to me, to be read to the students. I tried to reach the President of the SRC who was said to be in a meeting and was going to come back to me.
Unfortunately she never did come back to me. At this stage our office alerted the religious leaders across the city and urged them to drive to UWC, fearing what seemed an eminent disaster. The presence of the religious leaders served to restrain both the police, security and the students. What could have been a second Marikana was gain avoided.
It is now public knowledge that the the security company that arrived the second day wearing military uniform and carrying live ammunition had the notorious members of the disbanded apartheid secrete units operatives such as the Kufut, including mercenaries from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Theses are scenes seen recently inside the many South African universities, a heightened state of emergency. “Fees Must Fall” campaign is not a fight against the rectors of the universities or the police.
They are not asking for handouts but they are waging a war against poverty, against the burden of being black, against exclusion and crying for a fare chance to break the generational cycle of perpetual lack in their families.
Those who stood opposed to the student demands are fighting a fight that is not theirs, they are defending the indefensible.
Even the minister of education agrees that free education is a possibility in South Africa.
The future of children must not be dictated to by the conditions of lack from which they come, education is not a privilege but a right enshrined in the constitution and promised by the freedom charter.
Without free education, black children will grow up into modern slavery and will continue to live with “social death” and the debilitating state of we call Black Pain.
Skosana is a freelance writer. His views do not necessarily represent the views of City Vision.