Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) students barricade the entrance to the university with burning tyres. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/(ANA)
Since Fees Must Fall entered the South African political terrain in 2015 as an organised student movement and as a call for fee-free higher education, it was inevitable that protests would be part of the ongoing strategy to ensure that the demand made by students across the country would be implemented.

The assumption was that protests would equal desired results.

The reality on the ground, however, is that while some politicians made announcements declaring free education would happen, in order to appease students and to achieve strategic political objectives, these politicians were never clear on where the funds would come from.

Student protests have intensified and resulted in huge infrastructural damage to university buildings and other resources. Some of this damage, however, may not have been carried out by students, but possibly by other third-force elements intent on destabilising the national political terrain.

The government has attempted to respond to student demands through trying to introduce a policy framework which enables certain income groups to qualify for fee-free higher education as well as re-structure the National Student Financial Aid Scheme as an implementing agent that disburses food vouchers, laptops and other practical support to qualifying students.

However, the process has been plagued with problems and students were often left hungry as vouchers did not materialise and some were waiting for laptops in order to study.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the academic year has started with a call by student representative councils and bodies for a shutdown across higher education institutions, particularly in KZN, until specific demands are met. Some demands are legitimate, such as decent accommodation and safe transport between campuses.

However, others, which expect students to be registered without some form of minimum administrative fee being paid, are more complex.

The assumption is that university facilities such as IT systems, libraries, laboratories and staff are to be paid for by some form of government subsidy/third-stream funding, instead of primarily by income from fees and administration levies.

The shutdown has led to clashes between students and private security personnel that have been brought in by university authorities and the SAPS.

These protests have also had serious consequences and caused bodily harm and fatalities.

At the Durban University of Technology, a student was shot and killed by live ammunition fired by a private security officer in a situation that suddenly escalated. In the same scuffle, a union staff member was severely injured by rocks and bricks thrown in her direction by some students. She has had to undergo surgery.

DUT has called for a suspension of the academic programme, as has the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The question we have to ask ourselves is, are we going to achieve fee free higher education with deaths of students and injury to staff members?

The answer lies in examining government policy and constitutional rights. There has been an acknowledgement by our government that fee-free education is a basic right qualifying students are entitled to.

However, it has not been able to provide universal access as it has specified class and income groups which qualify to benefit. The wealthy must still pay for children to attend.

It appears that the provisions put in place by government and universities are not satisfactory to the student bodies, who are making specific demands.

What has complicated the situation on the ground, especially at UKZN, are scams where students accepted to study at UKZN paid to secure accommodation. However, when they physically arrived at UKZN, they realised there were no rooms available.

This is unacceptable and those running these scams must be severely punished by the law. In these instances, it is understandable that students will protest as they are left frustrated and let down by the system. In the final analysis, however, throwing rocks, damaging infrastructure and being responded to by live ammunition is not the way forward or the answer to the challenges students and higher education institutions face in general.

First, it is unacceptable that any security personnel should have live ammunition on them on university property. The proclivity that university authorities have had over the past few years to call in private security companies to “manage” their security issues has seen universities become divided and segregated spaces and a culture of fear and uncertainty emerge among staff, students, parents and the public who use the facilities.

Universities are meant to be public spaces (albeit with university property being considered private to some extent). But as long as universities are subsidised by government they are public spaces. And they should remain safe, accessible and conducive to teaching and learning and not become militarised war zones.

This requires that students and those who manage and work at the university see one another as partners working towards a common goal.

While some challenges will remain (unless some very wealthy benefactors provide an endless supply of funds to fix the funding challenges), the work of the university has to be allowed to continue, so that people are not held back from learning, completing their studies and graduating.

This may necessitate university assemblies being called where all can speak freely and openly about their issues and not be afraid or silenced.

Such open conversations will allow for solutions to emerge organically and not be held hostage to “negotiations” between representatives of groups which may never see any fruitful outcome or be stalled indefinitely.

In an election year, what is fast becoming a reality on the ground is that university campuses are being used by political parties as spaces to canvass for votes, and real student and staff issues are possibly being hijacked.

We need to step away from these kinds of situations and just talk to one another as members of a university community who want the best solutions to the problems which face us collectively.

Otherwise we will simply descend into chaos and swiftly become obsolete in a society that is rapidly evolving towards a future which we may not be sufficiently prepared for.

Let us stop the violence and start talking to each other.

Nadvi is based in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and writes in her personal capacity.