Johannesburg - ‘Baby, I’m going to be late tonight” – it’s what angry Wits University students instructed the institution’s vice-chancellor to tell his wife when they allowed him a second phone call, after surrounding and prohibiting him from leaving Senate House on Friday night.
Hundreds of protesting students vowed to stay the night, with Professor Adam Habib “detained” alongside them, till executive council chairman Dr Randall Carolissen arrived on campus to address them over a disputed fee hike that brought the university to a standstill for three days this week.
Earlier in the afternoon the protesting students had instructed Habib to call Carolissen on speaker phone in front of them to tell him to convene a meeting last night.
Habib and Carolissen had both been at the higher education conference on transformation in Durban. While Carolissen remained in Durban, Habib flew back to Joburg, but his “late” arrival angered the students. As he arrived the students encircled him, separating him from university security that had accompanied him into Senate House.
“Voetsek,” they shouted. “He made us wait for him the whole week. Now he will wait,” they vowed.
Some students carried placards that declared: “Dear Adam Habib. Application for dictatorship successful.” Others described the VC as “Adolf Habib” and expressed: “Blade Nzimande. Adam Habib. Homo Naledi. No difference.”
Habib first stood on a planter so he could be seen over the crowd that surged toward him. He told student leaders Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Shaeera Kalla he did not have the power to grant their demands to stop the 10.5 percent fee hike and end the ban on students writing exams if they owed a high percentage of their fees.
“Law doesn’t give me the authority,” he said, explaining the university’s council made those decisions. When one angry student asked why he had come in the first place, he answered: “I come to respect you.”
The students were not there to negotiate. A chant of “Fire Habib!” rose from the crowd before they summoned Habib and seated him on the floor in the middle of the sea of students.
Deputy vice-chancellor Andrew Crouch, who was already in the hall, was also made to sit on the floor with Habib. Mcebo Dlamini, the former SRC president later allowed Habib a quick private phone call to his wife, warning the the vice-chancellor that it would be a long night.
After sunset, Carolissen did arrive. He addressed students saying that while he acknowledged the students’ financial difficulties and their right to protest, university staff and other students could not be held ransom. The students dismissed his comments, breaking out in protest songs.
Odwa Abraham, a third-year post-graduate law student, said he had paid R103 000 in university fees. “My bursary can’t pay so much money. I have to pay R30 000. Most of us, especially black children, are the first to come to university and having to go home and face the family – it’s very sad. We must chant and study at the same time.”
Students accused management of marginalising black students by increasing the fees and said it was detrimental to the poor. “It is painful to be a black child in South Africa, it is worse if you are poor and are from the rural areas,” said Dlamini. He said even if those poor students scored high academically, they were often rejected when they applied to tertiary institutions.
“We continue with the struggle to educate black people. Wits must lead society but they neglect us. Our families look up to us to change this poverty cycle,” Dlamini said.
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