Johannesburg - The ongoing protests over fee increases that have shut down several universities are a “gross injustice”.
And the mutiny, which could be infiltrated by forces which do not represent the interests of the poor, has to stop before universities are destroyed.
So says Gwebinkundla Qonde, Department of Higher Education and Training director-general, as more university students threaten to shut down their respective institutions.
“If this is not arrested, it has a potential to destroy the system. Universities will take a serious knock,” Qonde warned, also reminding South Africans that local universities have taken a knock in the recently released QS World University Rankings survey.
“If the rankings continue to go down, the rich will remove their children from the universities and the working class will be trapped in a system that doesn’t work,” he said.
Fees Commission chairman Judge Jonathan Heher also weighed in, saying free education was never free.
Judge Heher said countries that went that route always had repayment plans in place. “We examined case studies and studied documents on fee-free education from across the world. Very few have totally free education,” he said.
The Heher commission was appointed by President Jacob Zuma to investigate funding at higher education institutions and has a deadline of June next year.
Heher advised that issue of a free education system was not cut-and-dried. “There are consequences to be kept in mind,” he said.
Students had to keep in mind the ever-increasing number who went into higher education. “So it is not only fees that must be catered for; there is infrastructure like buildings and libraries and other expensive items.
”There would also be support structures, academics and administration staff to be employed and paid."
He expressed a concern that the commission was yet to host student participation. “If they do not make submissions we will be short-changed,” Judge Heher said.
As Judge Heher addressed the media briefing convened by the National Press Club at Court Classique Hotel in Arcadia on Wednesday, violence continued at universities across the country.
Pandemonium reigned at Wits University as rocks and rubber bullets were exchanged between students and the police, who used stun grenades and tear gas in a bid to quell the protests. This was as the students tried to march to several colleges in Braamfontein in a bid to encourage more students to take part in the #Fees2017 protest.
The University of Pretoria shut down its Hatfield campus indefinitely, a decision made in the interests and safety of staff, students and property, according to university spokesperson Anna-Retha Bouwer.
There were mixed reactions from student leaders at the institution, with some calling for a shutdown while others wanted to continue with academic activities.
Minor protests were also reported at the Tshwane University of Technology’s Arcadia campus.
The universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, North West’s Mahikeng campus, Unisa and KwaZulu-Natal haven’t been left unscathed by the protests, triggered by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on Monday that universities' student fees could be increased, but capped at 8 percent.
He emphasised that students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the “missing middle” would not be affected by the increase, but would be subsidised.
Wits University seems to be the epicentre of the wave of protests, with students clashing with police and private security personnel since Monday.
This was as the students marched to several private colleges in Braamfontein to join the protests. Wild screams, green smoke and loud bangs filled the air as stun grenades were set off to disperse a large crowd singing and chanting outside the Jorissen Street entrance to Wits.
Police managed to push them back and tried to escort them back to the campus. But the students remained defiant outside the entrance, prompting the police to form a barrier.
The students, who had formed a human chain, crossed the police line. Officers fired stun grenades, forcing the students back to campus.
The students then regrouped and renewed their warfare, throwing stones and bricks at the police, who retaliated with stun grenades and rubber bullets.
At Unisa, the national students' representative council urged students to be “combat-ready” as the call to down study material was imminent and unavoidable.
General secretary Buyisile Njokweni said subsidising the so-called "missing middle" and providing free education for the poor was going to divide students to ensure they did not achieve their primary goal of free education for all. “We did not request free education; we demanded and still demand free education in our lifetime,” Njokweni said.
“”But we will not shut down campuses as yet, as we wait for the council to make a pronouncement.”
The University of Pretoria closed down its Hatfield campus, and spokeswoman Anna-Retha Bouwer said the decision was made in the interest of the safety of students, staff and property.
“In the light of continuing protest action at various tertiary institutions, management decided to close its Hatfield campus for all students with immediate effect. Staff are requested to continue with their normal duties until further notice,” she said.
There had been mixed reactions from student leaders at the institution, with some calling for a shutdown and others saying academic activities should continue.
The EFF Student Command protested in the amphitheatre at the university, calling on management to respond to the fee increment.
Bouwer said the university was engaging with student leaders and other stakeholders. “Details of the reopening of the campus will be communicated to all students, parents and staff. We regret closing the campus at this critical time, but all academic activities will be rescheduled.”
About 50 students at Tshwane University of Technology gathered at the Arcadia campus and burnt tyres at the main entrance. They prohibited students from accessing campus, and those who arrived early were locked inside and denied exit.
University spokeswoman Willa de Ruyter said activities at all their campuses were continuing.
“Two minor incidents were reported at Arcadia and eMalahleni, but the situation was normalised promptly,” De Ruyter said. She said any decision on fee adjustments resided with the council.
The Sefako Makgato University of Health Sciences in Ga-Rankuwa also closed down indefinitely and interim vice-chancellor Professor Chris de Beer said this was precautionary and would give way to discussions among students and other bodies.
Students at the University of Cape Town continued to protest, while the institution’s heath faculty made plans to hold a picket outside Parliament this afternoon.
At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, there were peaceful meetings, after which students dispersed quietly.
Minor violence was reported at the University of the North West, University of Joburg and the Vaal University of Technology.
Meanwhile the parliamentary select committee on education and recreation urged all students to acknowledge the processes that were under way.
They must recognise the comprehensive solutions that must be found to ensure that both quality of higher education programmes and access for everyone is achieved, the committee’s Lungelwa Zwane said.
The Star and Pretoria News