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NMMU News

How #FeesMustFall revolution rocked NMMU campus

Herald reporter Devon Koen, asked NMMU vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz and SRC president-elect Nicholas Nyati to share their versions of what happened behind the scenes

PROF DERRICK SWARTZ 

Q: In 2010 you were appointed by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to head up a task team to investigate how to make free tertiary education viable. What was the outcome and in your view why was it not implemented? 

A: The task team looked at “free” higher education for the poor and lower middle class, not universally free. We handed the report to the minister and briefed him, and subsequently understand that it was tabled at the ANC’s Mangaung conference, and cabinet. I understand from the minister that Treasury indicated then that it was not fundable. My view is government failed to make funding of public higher education the priority it should enjoy.

Q: After meeting with President Zuma, other vice-chancellors and student representatives on Friday, what is the blueprint for the way forward?

A: The decision was that there will be zero increase on costs directly to the students, but the state agreeing to fund shortfalls, in conjunction with universities doing cost-management and austerity interventions. This is going to be a huge challenge as we will be under huge pressure not to cut investment in support services for students, especially those requiring additional support.

Q: What will happen after 2016? A: This is the big problem: right now, we simply do not know. All we agreed on was the expansion of the terms of reference of the Presidential Working Group to propose measures within six months to propose a new framework governing the funding of universities in respect of fees and subsidy, taking into account the cost drivers in higher education. Again, I did not hear any commitment from the president on the idea of universal “free higher education”. Instead, it was agreed that the working group will also examine the policy implications of implementing the recommendations of the task team on free fee higher education for the poor, which I had chaired.

Q: Are there currently talks with banks and corporates to partner with universities to offer additional bursaries or scholarships for financially needy and academically deserving students?

A: Talks with banks have been initiated some weeks ago, but are still at an elementary stage, and a public-private funded system will require legislative changes in the NSFAS Act – so it’s a medium-term solution essentially.

Q: When you first heard about the protests taking place at NMMU what was your initial reaction? What were the decisions taken at that stage and why?

A: Last Tuesday night, as I was about to depart for CT for a meeting with the minister and student movements on trying to find a solution. We only heard that students were planning to protest about “fee increases” (even though no fees had been set for 2016 at NMMU), and decided to focus on ensuring our security staff and support services contain protests, and ensuring it does not infringe the rights of passage and being of others either by default or deliberately, and preventing students from moving beyond the campus where we have no jurisdiction.

Q: It was an unprecedented occasion to see all student political organisations standing together. What are your views on this?

A: I fully support the cause of a “free fee” system for the poor and lower middle class. It is entirely doable, but not within the current HE funding framework, hence our calls for a new model. I think the #FeesMustFall movement is one of the most remarkable social movements in recent years, and shows an awakening of a new social and political consciousness amongst a significant section of our student communities. This is the next generation of higher education leaders in the making, in my view. I do however have serious disagreements about the use of blockades and disruption of classes – and hold the strong view that we cannot deprive the rights of others in exercising the right of protest, especially not rights of being and movement. Our constitution is very clear on this matter and it is a principle we must insist on.

Q: Students demanded to meet you at the Kraal yet you chose to address them at the Madibaz Stadium on Thursday, why did you wait until Thursday to address the students and why did you not meet them at the Kraal?

A: We had every indication that the venue for a mass meeting was accepted, and your own newspaper even quoted the incoming SRC president Nicholas Nyati, confirming this (The Herald, October 22). We only learnt about the Kraal when we were already at the stadium, and without proper security and logistical arrangements, it would simply not have been responsible for us to attend this. As I am responsible for safety of staff and students, this is an absolute and non-negotiable imperative. If a staff member or student member has an epileptic or asthma attack in a crowd, and no reasonable evacuation or medical procedures are in place, the VC has to take responsibility. Moreover, staff members asked whether we could give assurances that there would be no intimidation or confrontational behaviour and I simply could not offer this as the Kraal was unchecked and unsecured by our security and medical staff.

NMMU SRC PRESIDENT-ELECT NICHOLAS NYATI

Q: Who was behind the initial mobilisation of students last week and can you give us a blow by blow account of what happened?

A: This was a united student protest led by DASO, EFF, Sasco, BSS and the SRC as a legal statutory body. The student leaders met with the SRC on Tuesday at 4pm and wanted to protest in solidarity with other universities. They then decided to disrupt the VC's Achievers Dinner as a way of sending a strong message that we cannot pretend things are normal, when they are not. The student leaders then met the students and planned for the protest which started on Wednesday morning with students barricading the entrances. Unfortunately, we experienced police brutality which we will still take legal action against: Where police shot unarmed students [with rubber bullets]. The students demanded to see the VC, and could not meet him as he was in George. This is what made the students frustrated; we were then told that we would meet with the VC on Thursday at the Madibaz Stadium. After relaying this message to the students, the students said they were scared of entering the stadium, they feared that the stadium was a closed venue and police could easily trap and shoot them inside. As student leaders we understood this especially after what we encountered on Wednesday. On Thursday, the students barricaded the entrances again to send a strong message. This was wrong and illegal and I would like to on record apologise on behalf of the protesters who were led by emotion. The barricading of entrances continued until 6pm that Thursday. On Friday, the university was shut down and the students decided to march from Summerstrand to town, to meet with the premier of the province and the mayor because we understand that they represent the same government that is failing us. Fortunately for the mayor and the premier the 0% fee increment was announced minutes after we arrived at the City Hall.

Q: What do you think of President Zuma's 0% fee increase announcement?

A: I am happy and disappointed at the same time. I am happy that the youth of South Africa united behind one common goal, and I am particularly happy with the students of NMMU and how they conducted themselves in these protests compared to other universities. I am happy that the youth is no longer voiceless, I believe that we are like the youth of 1976 but only stronger and wiser. I am disappointed that it took the government mass protests, police brutality and us missing classes for them to finally answer our call of 0% fee increments. What will happen to fee increments next year? Must the class of 2016 and 2017 protest again? This really is disappointing for me.

Q: NMMU vice-chancellor Professor Derrick Swartz prepared a report on how to go about making free tertiary education a viable option? Were students aware of this and would this have changed the way in which the protests transpired?

A: Students were not aware of this, and I bet you all my being that a lot would have changed if they knew. This goes back to the issue of communication between management and general students. The university is making great strides in providing this platform and I believe that in the next few years we will find the formula.

Q: In your view, did NMMU management effectively handle the situation?

A: Yes and no. To be quite honest the management did try to communicate with us but we could not reach an agreement. On Wednesday, students wanted to meet with the VC, but unfortunately he was in George and sent the DVC Dr Muthwa whom students did not want to listen to. We further communicated with the management to set up a mass meeting, which again could not happen due to a disagreement about the chosen venue. Management, particularly the VC had then taken this as an important matter, and called a meeting with all the student leaders to discuss a way forward for us as an institution. The meeting was held yesterday at noon. We agreed that there is a necessity for a mass meeting which is set to be held tomorrow at lpm; we have selected a committee which will decide on a venue that both students and management are happy with. This mass meeting will be a platform for the general students to voice their grievances to management and look at finding solutions together in moving forward. MASS MEETING: Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle leaves the Port Elizabeth City Hall on Friday after being prevented from speaking to protesting NMMU students