Nzimande was among the main speakers at the Higher Education National Convention which was supposed to be held for two days at the Eskom Learning Academy in Midrand. The convention was organised by the National Education Forum, chaired by Justice Dikgang Moseneke, and was called off after irate students clashed.
Students booed and stormed the stage when Nzimande was trying to give his address. EFF students would not allow the minister to speak, while the Young Communist League students wanted to defend their leader.
As the pandemonium escalated, students punched each other, threw water bottles and chairs at each other, while some hit each other with belts. Nzimande found himself in the crossfire from EFF and YCL students fighting over whether he should be allowed to speak or not. With the violence unfolding just metres away from him, he had to be whisked out of the venue.
Higher Education director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde said it was only a few students who were trying to disrupt the convention.
“This was supposed to be an opportunity for all of us to engage on challenges in the post-school sector. Tolerance and not arrogance will help us triumph.”
Wits vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib was also booed. Amid chants of “Habib must go!” he said: “We have a crisis in higher education. As long as there is intolerance, we won’t be able to solve anything.”
This was the second violent incident. During the first part of proceedings on Saturday, the students wasted no time disrupting it with their unruly behaviour as they could not agree on who should take the podium.
Students were supposed to give their three-minute opening statements. All the students objected to AfriForum taking the podium.
While conveners tried to reach a consensus on whether the organisation – which represents mostly Afrikaans students – should be given a chance to speak, Wits #FeesMustFall leader Busisiwe Seabe started addressing the audience. Students aligned with the ANC started calling, “Who is she representing?”
The EFF student command tried to defend Seabe and this led to Progressive Youth Alliance students throwing chairs at them.
EFF student command secretary Phiwaba Madokwe said the cancellation of the event was not the end of their fight for free education.
“We have been fighting for free education for years. How are we, three years after fees must fall, still discussing the same issues?”
Moseneke said: “The minister, who was our guest, who we invited, had to leave in circumstances that were unacceptable. This was a deeply sad day but dialogue continues. There can’t be heroism in shouting and screaming.”
Academic programmes at most universities across the country were in the last two years disrupted by protests over fee increases, among other issues.