Bloemfontein – “I never felt so terrified.” That was the reaction of Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, after witnessing the violent attacks by spectators on protesters at a Varsity Cup rugby match in Bloemfontein on Monday night.
The protesters had invaded the pitch about 15 minutes into the match, demanding among other things that an end be put to the outsourcing of services on the university campus. After a few minutes, and after some of the protesters can clearly be heard on video footage yelling “Come, come!”, spectators swarmed onto the field and started attacking and chasing protesters.
“The level of abuse we can sink to over a rugby match left me completely gutted,” Jansen said. “And unfortunately, the optics were not good. It was mostly white students beating up black protesters.”
Jansen said they were working around the clock to gather evidence, including video evidence, on the basis of which the university will pursue charges and, in the case of students, also disciplinary action.
“At the same time, the invasion of the pitch is also completely unacceptable and we will seek evidence on the basis of which we will act against those who decided to disrupt an official university event,” Jansen said.
The UFS management had decided to close the campus and suspend all academic and administrative functions for two days.
“The last thing a university wants to do is to stop its academic program,” Jansen said. “But we had to put the safety of our students and staff first.”
The university had recruited 60 additional security personnel to deal with the ongoing protest actions and would decide on a “day-to-day basis” whether to extend the closure.
Jansen expressed his surprise at the issue of outsourcing services that seemed to form the basis of protest actions. He said management had been in consultation with workers and unions on the issue and had been hoping to reach a final agreement on Monday afternoon.
“We made it clear that if we could insource immediately, we would. But that the financial risk to the university was so great that it threatened the jobs of all our staff. Those negotiations were going well, until recently, when without notice the workers broke away and decided to protest on and around campus.”
He said they were aware of the fact that the protests were not only led by students, but also by people from outside who had no association with the university.
The university management team said they could not give an estimate as to the extent of the damage caused on campus since protests started on Monday afternoon. A number of windows had been broken, garbage had been strewn and the statue of former president C.R. Swart had been removed and thrown in a water pond. There was no “massive physical damage” and also not “extremely harmful” incidents of physical violence.
Jansen said the university management was, however, dismayed by the setback these events, especially the clashes between white and black students, had caused to the transformation process on campus.
“While we have made major progress in recent years – from residence integration to a more inclusive language policy… we still have a long way to go,” Jansen concluded.
“We will double our efforts to impress on students that they are human beings first and foremost, and not just black or white.”