The Power Of Unity. South African students march in protest.

Close to a hundred students were arrested countrywide on Wednesday afternoon during the national student protest that turned violent.

Police said all students arrested were released with a warning and are scheduled to appear in court at a later date. National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said 43 students were arrested in the North West, 29 in the Western Cape and 20 students in the Eastern Cape.

Naidoo said the students who were arrested in the North West Province will appear in court in January 2016, and in the Western Cape students will be back in court on February 23 next year. In the Eastern Cape students, were scheduled to appear in court in November 29.

 This comes after students from across the country marched in solidarity against university fee hikes for 2016 on Wednesday. Among the students arrested in Cape Town was the son of University of Cape Town’s vice chancellor Max Price, Ilan, together with Rev Frank Chikane’s son Khotsi, Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s son Nyakallo and top legal brain Advocate Wim Trengove’s son Markus.

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ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe came down to meet with protesting students outside the party’s Luthuli House headquarters in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Earlier, former Wits University SRC president Mcebo Dlamini told the crowd: “The secretary general of the ANC will humble himself and come down here.”

“When I was growing up I was told the ANC respects people. I was inducted in nothing but the ANC – that the ANC was for the people. They must now come down to the people.

“Away with an arrogant ANC, away,” he said as Mantashe made his way to him.

He said the protesters were there “for one reason and one reason only – free and quality education”.

Dlamini said there should also be no outsourcing at Wits university.

“There are cleaners at the university who were cleaning when [Wits vice chancellor] Adam Habib was still a student.”

He also criticised “white monopoly media” who was there to “portray the black child as a savage”.

“Tomorrow [Friday] we are going to shut down the Union Buildings.”

Incoming Wits SRC president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa told the crowd that protests would continue until students’ demands were met.

“We have had white men point knives and guns at us in our institutions.”

A student was then asked to read a memorandum of demands.

On Wednesday afternoon, a nationwide protest by students against increased fees came to a head when protesters stormed the Parliament precinct while Finance Minister Nonhlanhla Nene was delivering his mid-term budget.

The protesters clashed with police, who eventually used stun grenades to force them back out.

Several protesters were also arrested, including the sons of UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price and ANC stalwart Frank Chikane.

29 protesters, most of them university students, were released on a warning on Thursday and their case postponed to February next year.

The protest action began last week Wednesday, with Wits University students protesting against a proposed 10.5% fee hike for 2016. Other institutions joined in this week.

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There were several elephants in the room at the South African Higher Education Summitwhich ran just as university students were beginning a nationwide series of protests against fees.

One of the summit’s themes was “access and success”. I, like many of my colleagues in the field of academic development, have spent my career teaching, researching and leading out of a commitment to“access and success”. These are issues of admissions, curriculum and ways of teaching that have a bearing on whether students successfully graduate and enter into the world of meaningful work.

But none of this featured on the summit’s agenda. The student leadership at the summit was singularly focused, clear and articulate on one access issue only: financial access. They dominated the floor and took over the commission agenda. You cannot talk about issues of “access and success” without putting issues of finance on the table.

 Unless you can afford to enter a university – and to stay – then no other issue really matters, does it? And the issue is not just fees, but about the rising costs of higher education, the shrinking provision from the state pot for the sector and a whole host of other related matters such as the management and mismanagement of government funding through the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

What to make of this? Have the students missed the plot? Have those in academia and government leadership missed the plot?

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Systemic failure

Fees and broader issues of financial access are one piece of a bigger story. Since the release in 1997 of the government’s white paper ontransformation in education, every policy document about the sector has pointed to the severe challenges that our higher education system faces.

 Most recently, the Council of Higher Education’s 2013 proposal on curriculum restructuring went so far as to argue that South Africa has“systemic failure” that requires systemic solutions.

In good South African tradition, we all know the problems. They were outlined crisply in the council’s 2013 report and repeated almost like a mantra at the summit – low participation, high drop-out and a shrinking public purse. Against this backdrop, the summit was a series of missed opportunities.

First, it was a chance to really engage with the students who are now protesting at most of South Africa’s big universities. Instead of engagement there were times when the tone from the leadership – including the minister of higher education and especially the Director-General – was defensive and patronising. Students were scolded for using Twitter, with leaders saying this reduced issues to 140 characters. They were encouraged to read Karl Marx as the country’s struggle heroes had.

The issues raised by the students are not the students’ problems. These are our problems. At every level from the state to the ministry to the senior levels of university leadership, we are responsible. Thecontent, format and tone of the summit would have been different if we understood this as a collective and urgent problem. The urgency and seriousness of the matters may be more evident to the minister after Wednesday’s massive march by students on South Africa’s parliament in Cape Town.

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 Second, it was a missed opportunity to move from problem analysis, which we have no shortage of, to concrete short-, medium- and long-term proposals. Instead of responding to the clear problems, one of the education department’s own papers tabled at the summit argues that we have an “improving system”. This is supported with cohort studies on increasing retention rates and decreasing dropout rates.

The report concedes, however, that the graduate rate of 53% after five years of study is not good enough.

Politically irresponsible

The reference to an “improving system” strikes me as disingenuous and politically irresponsible. It is disingenuous because the data is aggregated at such a high level that it is meaningless. For example, what are the retention rates of the Bachelor of Science or Engineering? What are the retention rates disaggregated by race?

It is irresponsible because of the myriad interpretations of such a message and their consequences. If we are led to believe that the system is improving then we have to find reasons for the improvement given that the schooling system is not producing better university-prepared matriculants. The reasons given in the report point to a range of “interventions” – NSFAS funding, foundation programmes and teaching development grants.

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 But we know that foundation programmes only account for about 15% of the student population. We also know that the development grants are a welcome but very recent insertion of resources – most cannot yet report on impact. What does the department hope to gain by such a message of an “improved system”?

Where to from here? All of us who care about higher education – management, academics, administrators, students – should join the protest marches. Not to blame, but to lament this sad state of affairs.

When we are finished marching we need to reconvene to address both the immediate issues and the underlying fundamental problems. We need to address issues of financial affordability and then broaden the agenda to other critical issues of access and success. This is the opportunity that leadership in South African higher education offers us today.

Disclosure statement

Suellen Shay does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

A group of white students in South Africa formed a human shield to protect black student demonstrators from police officers that had previously used force against the predominantly black crowd protesting rising university fees.
According to the official Twitter account of the #RhodesMustFall movement, RMF called on white supporters to form a shield around black protesters to protect them from police.

Students from Rhodes University went to support their peers at the Eastcape Midlands College (EMC), according to Rhodes’ independent publication, Activate.

Activate reported: “Rhodes students united with the EMC protestors with the hopes of discouraging use of unnecessary force by the police. According to an eyewitness, tensions rose when protestors were chanting at the police to leave, and the police responded by driving towards the crowd in an attempt to disperse the protestors.”

The publication continued, “Gates at EMC were closed to prevent students from entering the premises. The eyewitness explained that a man attempted to climb over the gate resulting in SAPS firing what was initially thought to be rubber bullets into the crowd. However, SAPS have since stated that stun grenades were the only weapons used against the protesters.”

The white human shield appeared to have worked, as no further rubber bullets or stun grenades were fired. Whether or not the police would have used force, had white students not stood in the way, will forever remain a mystery.

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