Student protests: Fort Hare breaks ranks with other universities: 'They've never supported us'

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Student protesters in Johannesburg.
Student protesters in Johannesburg.
Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty
  • A University of Fort Hare SRC leader is encouraging students to refrain from a planned national shutdown of 26 universities.
  • Of the 26 universities in South Africa, only 15 have joined the shutdown so far.
  • But the SRC's president, Siphiwo Ngcenge, has pledged solidarity with the SA Union of Students.

A University of Fort Hare (UFH) student representative council leader has encouraged its students to boycott the national shutdown of 26 universities, saying that "prestigious institutions like Wits and UCT" have not supported Eastern Cape universities.

This comes as several universities across the country heed a nationwide call from the SA Union of Students (SAUS) to shut down all campuses as part of protests over student funding.

The SAUS believes the higher education department has failed to respond positively to its demands, including a demand that that institutions of higher learning must not block students from registering when they have historic debt. As a result, it called for the shutdown.

WATCH | Police deny firing live shots at protesters as student demonstrations flare up again

But Sibusiso Zonke, the UFH SRC leader, known as the "premier" of UFH's East London campus, was having none of it.

"Disadvantaged students from University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University have been striking year after year with no support from those prestigious institutions, like Wits and UCT. We were on strike even last year and the year before that, but there was no national shutdown. But because now these strikes started at UCT and Wits, the entire country is expected to come to a standstill."

Zonke added that the UFH SRC asked its 19 000 students to stand down.

"For now, we are busy with registration. We won't be bringing this process to a halt. As the SRC, we are still having sensitive meetings with management over disputes, so we can't just jeopardise our talks by shutting down the campus."

Zonke said while the UFH SRC was in solidarity with protesting students at Wits, but won't drop everything and join the fray.

Meeting

SAUS president Meshack Mugabe said the SRC president of University Fort Hare, Siphiwo Ngcenge, was present at a meeting with the SAUS in Pretoria on Saturday and Sunday and never disagreed with the unanimous decision to embark on a national shutdown.

When contacted, Ngcenge confirmed that he attended the meeting and pledged solidarity with the SAUS. Asked whether the UFH was planning to shut down its campus, Ngcenge refrained from answering.

But Mugabe ripped into Zonke during an interview with News24: "Sibusiso Zonke is a premier of the smallest campus in the country and therefore he is too junior to decide on behalf of the entire SRC of Fort Hare and he cannot decide for all the students of Fort Hare.

"We will provide him with political education about free education at the right time. So far, we are joining other universities that are protesting. For that matter, we do not need permission from him to shut down.

"When the time is right, we will come to the University of Fort Hare and shut down that institution in front of him, with or without him. We have done that before. Our interests are the interests of students - not Sibusiso Zonke."

LIST | Student protests: Here are students' demands

Mugabe said that, as of 16 March, about 15 universities joined the protest. He said others, such as Walter Sisulu University and Tshwane University of Technology, would join immediately after finishing exams and the 2020 academic year.

The universities fell behind due to challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The demand for debt clearance and all other 15 demands in our memorandum are genuine demands that affect all students, including University of Fort Hare students. We can assure you that these demands are finding expression nationwide.

Sasco, the EFFSC, Pasma and DASO came out openly to support these demands. Our demands are going to be met and all students will benefit, including the University of Fort Hare students," said Mugabe.  

"The South African Union of Students encourages all students to be united at all times. We are intensifying the struggle to ensure that no student is left behind. It's not about rich or poor universities. It's about poor students who are being denied [the opportunity] to register for the 2021 academic year," Mugabe added.

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