Johannesburg - Wits University retreated from what appeared to be the brink of a complete meltdown on Wednesday night, as the fees increase impasse reached a tipping point.
After simmering tensions, triggered by the denial of bail to former Student Representative Council president and one of the #FeesMustFall leaders, Mcebo Dlamini, it turned out to be a peaceful day on campus as students dedicated the day to planning a way forward.
Dlamini, who faces charges of public violence, theft, malicious damage to property and assault with intent to do grievous body harm, all of which relate to his role in the protests, was denied bail in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court on Wednesday.
Magistrate Albertus Roux said that releasing Dlamini would be not be in the best interests of justice as the evidence before the court proved the accused would not be able to maintain peaceful protests.
The magistrate said Dlamini would remain in custody until his next court appearance on November 15.
Wits welcomed the decision, but the verdict proved a double-edged sword for the university.
After the decision, angry students left the court singing Struggle songs and then headed for the main campus in Braamfontein, where they convened a mass meeting.
A peace accord meeting at a church in Braamfontein was moved to Solomon Mahlangu House.
It got off to a shaky start when the students chased away Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib. They shouted at Habib, branding him a “sinner” and said he should release Dlamini before he could speak to them.
“It won’t be political for Adam Habib to stand in front of us and say he wants fee education whereas he will be the first to try any student who has been protesting,” said one student.
Habib said he and his management team had been invited to the meeting by the Academic Staff Association of Wits University, the Holy Trinity Church and religious leaders.
He said Wits management remained committed to working with students in trying to find solutions to the issues, many of which could be resolved only at the national level.
“We recognise passions are inflamed and that we should not take the reactions of some student leaders personally,” he said, adding that the university wanted to complete the 2016 academic year while at the same time addressing higher education funding.
Prominent South Africans, such as former public protector Thuli Madonsela, Cosatu founding leader Jay Naidoo and former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, South African Council of Churches general secretary Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana as well as Holy Trinity Church’s Father Graham Pugin attended the meeting.
The students shared their trauma at being attacked by the police in their respective residences, following the implementation of a curfew they equated with apartheid era policies.
They lambasted the media for not being there to report on the “shooting”, “teargassing” and “racial profiling”.
“In the village I come from, everyone is in debt, and that’s why I’m fighting. For the people back there and for my children!” said one student.
Mpumlwana reaffirmed the church’s support for #FeesMustFall and asked to see student Arthur Muhamelwa, who was allegedly abducted, tortured and dumped in Limpopo by the police.
Muhamelwa limped onto stage and received a hug from the bishop and then went away with both the bishop and Pugin.
Vavi promised to collect supplies and to gather support from workers for the students' protest action.
Earlier in the day, student leaders Vuyani Pambo and Busisiwe Seabe spoke of how they were gathering support for a day of protest when they would “shut down the country”.
Seabe said she had the support of the South African National Taxi Council.
She added that in other countries, their supporters would march to South African embassies and ask for sanctions against the country until their goal was met.
Madonsela’s arrival on stage, in contrast to Vavi’s, was met with cheerful singing.
She said she was there as a parent and a Wits alumni.
Madonsela apologised on behalf of the “grown-ups” who forgot about the struggles that the students were facing and thanked the students for reminding them of what was promised in the constitution and what Struggle stalwarts such as Nelson Mandela fought for.
However, she added she would be remiss if she did not call for a more peaceful way of achieving the goal of “free, equal and de-colonised education”. - Additional reporting by ANA