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Student members of the Fees Must Fall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) say university vice chancellors and government are colluding to stifle protests – which are taking place in good faith – for free quality education by bringing in militant private security forces owned by former apartheid police onto campus.

Phethani Madzivhandila, a student, said there is reason to believe that heads of university are acting on the state’s directive by bringing in private security to the campus. “We have heard from trusted sources that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande met with vice chancellors in December and asked them to ensure they have solid measures in place to stop any protest action that might resume in the new year.”

Madzivhandila said the university’s claims of precautions against violence and threats do not ring true, as he was there on the day of the protest and can confirm that the students were not violent and made no threats.

“It’s suspicious to us that after just one day of protesting (on 11 January) when registration started, the very next morning there were military security forces in the wee hours assaulting students,” said master’s student Thato Magano, part of the Fees Must Fall movement.

“This kind of security is not justifiable at all. There are also processes to acquiring security services and getting sign off from various heads of department at the university … the speed at which it all happened supports our belief that the university had planned to bring such forces in well before time regardless of the level of protest action by the students,” Magano said.

Responding to critique, Wits vice chancellor Adam Habib said in an open letter: “I want to assure you that we did not make the security arrangements lightly.” On the Monday in question, Habib said, there was indeed a small group of students who were not peacefully protesting, but rather actively preventing registration from taking place. “They were abusive of people, threatening them, and in some cases people were locked up in their offices.”

Rising pressure

Giving his account of the events of 12 January, Madzivhandila said that students who were sleeping at Solomon Mahlangu House (formerly Senate House) were woken up by a university representative who gave them a letter notifying them that they should evacuate the building. “Just five minutes later these military security forces came in. There were scuffles and unnecessary aggression and violence on their part.”

Magano said some female students have laid charges of sexual assault against the security forces as they were indecently groped during the altercations.

The students say there were an estimated 260 private security officers on campus, besides the campus police – and they are reportedly being paid R1 000 a day. The university is said to have spent about R2-million on these security forces so far.

In his open letter, Habib said people should bear in mind that the university has to balance expenses for security with the academic, financial and reputational consequences of not having had any. “It is also worth noting that a significant portion of the associated costs of our security arrangements may be covered by our insurance cover,” he said.

The students have also questioned the choice of private security companies. “The director of one of these companies used to be a prison warder at Robben Island,” said Madzivhandila. Furthermore, two of the companies are owned by people who used to oversee the systems of apartheid, the students claim – former National Party members and operatives of the police special branches of the police during apartheid. These officers are now said to be using “the same level of violence and aggression on us”.

The website of security company TSU Protection Services confirms that five of the seven senior members were part of the police and police task forces during apartheid and after. It also shows that one of the directors was with the correctional services department and served on Robben Island.

A walk around the Wits campus brings an uncanny, tense feeling; security forces dressed in tactical response outfits can be spotted in large numbers at every strategic spot on campus, from the gates inward. Their uniforms identify them as employees of Fidelity Security Services, TSU, and others who wear red tops bearing the word Reaction.

Support from Wits management in short supply

At the end of 2015, said Magano, protesting students had a good relationship with the vice chancellor and had agreed to continue engaging in good faith until issues were resolved. – but Habib’s recent actions were inconsistent with that agreement, although the students believe they have kept to their side of the deal, and would continue to do so.

“Even when we marched to the Union Buildings, Habib sent us a letter saying he was behind us and supported our fight for free quality education, amongst other concerns,” said Madzivhandila. “It seems he has done a complete turnaround.”

The student activists believe that government is putting pressure on the vice chancellors of all higher learning institutions to stop any outbreaks of protest. They say they are disappointed in the government’s underhanded efforts to use political influence to disempower them, rather than putting real measures in place to properly address their issues.

The students say they want free quality education, sooner rather than in the near future. They want an end to outsourcing practises throughout the South African workplace, because they believe such practises entrench poverty and a lower quality of life. They want a modernised, decolonised curriculum that reflects the changes in the country’s history.

“This is about bigger issues of change that need to be addressed in this country,” said Magano, adding that not just students, but society as a whole is affected.

Agreements reached

On 19 January Wits management and the Wits students’ representative council (SRC) reached an agreement on a range of issues, including free education, “The university and the SRC commit to the realisation of free education as the ultimate goal for all students who qualify academically and who cannot afford it,” said a statement released by the university.

The issue of outsourcing was also addressed, and the statement also said that “Workers’ children who have qualified for admission to the university and to residence will receive a full package, including tuition and accommodation.”

Speaking to issues around the safety and security, of the university community, the agreement states that “police should not use undue force that violates any human rights. The university and students need to find a non-violent and amicable way of resolving issues.”

On debt management, Wits committed to providing the SRC with data that would substantiate the need for state intervention on debt clearance for the missing middle – students who are not deemed eligible for funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, but are still not able to afford the university fees.

The statement said that all students who owe between R1 and R1 000 as at 31 December 2015 will be allowed to register in 2016, and their outstanding debt for 2015 will be rolled over to 2016. Some 3 600 students would benefit from this concession, Wits said. In addition, all students who can show that they are fully funded for 2016 would be allowed to register, but would have to sign an acknowledgement of debt for fees owed in 2015.

“The university will work with the SRC to raise funds to clear the debt of approximately 1 284 students who owe between R1 001 and R5 000 (as at 31 December 2015). If this effort is successful, these students will then be allowed to register in 2016.”

For around 1 420 students who owe between R5 001 and R20 000 (as at 31 December 2015), Wits and the SRC will approach the provincial government to cover this debt. These efforts, if successful, would allow these students to register for the 2016 academic year.

“We see this agreement as nothing more than negotiating further access to debt and creating more access points rather than overhauling the system,” said Magano. “Education should not be a commodity. These kinds of agreement change nothing, but rather just move the goal posts. It’s disheartening and a vicious cycle that’s condemning black people to a life of perpetual debt.”

Madzivhandila agreed, adding that Wits and the government should rather be finding ways of providing funding and solutions that bring free education to life promptly. “Our government has not done anything to address higher education needs since the dawn of democracy in 1994, and now the 22-year illusion of a rainbow nation has come to an end. “

They may be outnumbered and overpowered right now, but the students are not deterred – they are pleading with civil society to support them and help them continue their fight.