for tomorrow



To All Students and Staff

Dear Colleagues

I am writing to you in the aftermath of yesterday’s unfolding events on our Summerstrand campus in Port Elizabeth. Early yesterday morning, after Wednesday’s unlawful blockading of the front and back entrances of the University, NMMU’s security personnel aided by the SAPS, secured the entrance to the University – despite efforts by a group of students seeking repeat of a similar situation the previous day. 

Some of these students then decided to disrupt classes by invading several lecture rooms and the South Campus library, effectively forcing students and staff to vacate and end proceedings. I am sure you will agree that this behaviour is unacceptable. Over the past few days, we have been seeing a group of students increasingly pushing the boundaries of protest beyond the realm of peaceful conduct. This disturbs me deeply. The rights enshrined in our Constitution are indivisible - one cannot choose which rights to uphold, and which to ignore when it suits one. The rights of peaceful protests cannot override the rights of others not to protest and to get on with their lives. If we fail to uphold this cardinal principle, our country and University are in deep trouble and it augurs badly for the future. Students must learn this.

As you would know from Wednesday’s communique, I agreed to meet protesting students in a safe space – for them and staff - over their grievances. We had every indication that this invitation was accepted, with the incoming SRC President quoted in the Herald newspaper (22.10.2015) indicating agreement that they would attend the scheduled meeting at Madibaz Stadium earlier yesterday. The venue chosen was because of its size, open physical structure and ability of our security and medical staff to provide proper support as we typically do at such events. Yet, less than an hour before the event, we received verbal notification that the protestors refused to attend the University meeting, instead insisting they be addressed in an unsecured venue where there were obvious dangers to staff and students who have repeatedly expressed fears of being held hostage, citing recent examples at Wits, Rhodes and UCT, and feeling vulnerable and intimidated. As Vice–Chancellor, and on behalf of University Council, I am responsible for the safety of students and staff, and the environment, and if I cannot give guarantees in this regard, it would have been highly irresponsible to concede to this demand, and therefore I flatly rejected it.

When the group could not get their way, they promptly decided to barricade the front and back entrances to the University allegedly on the grounds that they will not relent ‘until the VC addresses them’ - an irony in that just an hour before this all senior management and staff waited for them in the hot sun. The protestors blocked all entrances of the Summerstrand campuses from 2.30pm till just after 6pm, causing immense distress and unhappiness to staff, students and other members of the public. How can this possibly be acceptable? We wish to apologise to these colleagues for the distressing situation, and thank our NMMU team for averting any resort to police action to clear the blockade. 

Given the volatile situation created by this group of demonstrators, and in consultation with the three Deputy Vice–Chancellors, I have decided to call off lectures today, Friday, 23 October with the view to restoring an acceptable level of safety and re-opening all our campuses for resumption of lectures and academic activities on Monday, 26 October. 

As we are going through this challenging time, I wish to restate my own deep commitment to the cause of a more affordable university education, especially for the poor. I know that the majority of NMMU staff and students desire a fairer, more just and equal society, and have deep compassion for the underprivileged, and want to see a fundamental change in our society. I know our staff and students desire access to opportunities for those historically-excluded from university. I also know of, and salute the amazing efforts of countless NMMU staff members raising funds for indigent students from all walks of life. And I know that you will not allow yourselves to be painted as uncaring and lacking compassion because we disagree with particular forms of unacceptable behaviour. But I also know that you will equally demand that no-one has the right to impose indignity, humiliation and impairment of your freedom to live and work at NMMU.  

Yours sincerely

Derrick Swartz