Statement from concerned academics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Monday 19 October 2015
This statement represents the observations of undersigned staff present on campus on Monday.
Following the agreement reached between Council and students on 17 October 2015 regarding the proposed fee increases, a University Assembly was scheduled to be held at noon on 19 October 2015.
Academic staff observed the following:
· Students assembled at the Piazza in front of the Great Hall at midday.
· Campus Control were present on the steps of the Great Hall. At one point they displayed a banner that read ‘Campus Control Stands in Solidarity with Students’.
· A group of academic staff formed a procession to join students, carrying banners and placards showing support for the student movement and highlighting the need for better state funding for universities.
· Conflicting information about the venue for the assembly was made public. Both Senate House concourse and the Great Hall steps were named as the location on social media. Some posters were placed around the Great Hall steps announcing that the Assembly would take place on Senate House concourse as ‘originally agreed’. It is not known who put up these signs. There was no official communiqué from university management confirming the venue for the assembly.
· At noon, the scheduled time of the assembly, there was no visible presence of or communication from either Council or university management regarding the commencement of the assembly outside the Great Hall. This led to students feeling frustrated.
· At around 12.10pm hundreds of students pushed past campus security. Those in front were pressed against the glass doors near the Great Hall steps. Because the doors were locked and chained, pressure increased to the point where the possibility of individuals being crushed was increasingly likely. Campus security on the far side of the doors observed this but did not intervene. The students in the alcove tried to persuade the crowd behind them to move back, while others managed to break the glass on one of the doors and force it open.
· Students then proceeded through Central Block, past the Great Hall and onto the Senate House concourse.
· All other doors at the Great Hall entrance as well as other entrances and exits to Senate House remained locked. Staff concerned about the potential safety implications of this asked Campus Control and university management to ensure that other doors to Senate House be opened. This was only done after about 15 minutes.
· Students proceeded to assemble on Senate House concourse. The decision by Council not to address the Assembly was communicated via e-mail to staff at 1.30pm. Students reportedly received that information 30-40 minutes later than staff did. The University posted the decision on its social media accounts at around 2pm.
· At around 2.30pm, university management communicated via email and social media that the Senate House concourse should be cleared by 3pm.
· Just after 3pm the assembled students left Senate House and proceeded onto Jan Smuts Avenue, from there making their way down to Empire Road.
· An occupation of the intersection of Empire Road and Yale Road took place for around an hour and a half. For the first three quarters of the sit-in no violence towards cars or drivers whatsoever was witnessed. Media reported that students banged on, threw stones at and waved sticks at cars. From our observations some students did wave sticks, while one student drummed on a car and then sat on it. This seemed to be crowd bravado in response to antagonism rather than being a sincere threat. At one point an ambulance was stuck behind a Rea Vaya bus and could not pass. However despite having its siren on, it did not make a
serious attempt to get through the traffic: indeed, a paramedic who was filming the protest engaged in an exchange of words with the students. Later a fire truck was allowed to pass.
· JMPD came on scene at around 3.15pm and attempted to clear the occupation. Police were present on both sides of the intersection. From the west (towards Milpark) they arrived first, called for backup and simply diverted all traffic. From the east (towards Jan Smuts) they came later and engaged the students.
· Just before 4pm the police grouping on the east side called for reinforcements with firearms; we were informed this was live fire (unverified). The observers and a documentary filmmaker engaged in discussions and this group stepped back.
· At around 4pm the driver of a white bakkie drove at speed through the police cordons and directly towards the crowd of seated students. In response to this incident a small breakaway group chased the car, which had pulled into the Engen garage about 100 meters away. The car was damaged and the driver injured. Student leaders were present almost immediately and worked to calm the situation down. A group of students formed a ring to protect the driver of the car. JMPD took the driver to safety, after which a small group of around 20-30 students overturned the car. This took place at around 4.25pm.
· All involved returned to the main occupation at the Yale Road intersection, where police had assembled with rifles (presumably with rubber bullets, but this is unverified).
· Police then negotiated with the students who agreed to disperse within five minutes. Student leaders remained near Empire Rd to ensure that all students moved up Yale Rd. By 5pm all students were back on campus and had reassembled in front of the Great Hall.
In light of these events, we as academic staff at Wits make the following observations:
· Students demonstrated strong leadership throughout. Health and safety concerns about the number of people on Senate House concourse (even after it became apparent that no one was coming to address the students) were managed adeptly by the leadership who led students peacefully out of the venue. When tensions flared on Empire Road with respect to the white bakkie, student leaders were present and did all they could to defuse the situation.
· Despite the challenging circumstances students and student leaders remained calm, organised and mostly peaceful. The two exceptions were the breaking of the door into the Great Hall and the injured driver and overturned car on Empire road. Only a tiny minority of students was involved in the latter and they were responding to what was perceived as extreme provocation and aggression from the driver. In terms of the former, we believe a lack of communication from management and a feeling of frustration from students, as well as legitimate fears for personal safety, led to that action.
· There was insufficient communication from Wits management regarding the Assembly, including conflicting information about the venue and notices regarding the closure of the university on Monday. The University changed the venue at a late stage due to health and safety regulations but this was not communicated clearly to the Wits community. No official communiqué was received from the University about the Assembly.
· Further, there was no clear planning on the part of Wits to hold a constructive, safe and comfortable/accessible Assembly. Of particular concern was the lack of sufficient medical personnel on campus, lack of signage, lack of water available despite the heat and absence of marshals to manage what was anticipated to be a significant crowd.
· The ways in which Council’s decision not to attend the assembly was communicated to staff and student were extremely problematic. Knowing full well that students were assembled in person, decisions were made to communicate only through social media rather than through a representative of Council or Management. This deeply alienated the assembled students.
· We are concerned at the lack of leadership shown by the management of Wits University including Council, the VC and DVCs in addressing the critical concerns raised by students, and believe that this has unnecessarily exacerbated tensions between students and management, led to the potential for violence against students and created unsafe conditions on campus.
In light of the broader debate around access to higher education for all, we call on Wits management to show an engaged, informed and principled leadership at this critical time and to work swiftly to resolve this conflict in the interests of all members of the University community, especially students facing financial exclusion.
Concerned Academics at Wits
Hannah le Roux
Simon van Schalkwyk
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