Fort Hare University on fire over ‘burning issues’
By Khuthala Nandipha and Thembelani Shadow Nqaba
Mayhem engulfed Fleet and Church street in East London with heavily armed police with rifles, rubber bullets, University of Fort Hare (UFH) students chanting, burning tyres and barricading the streets on Thursday, demanding that their Vice Chancellor, Professor Sakhele Buhlungu, must step down.
The Registrar of the university has since invoked an existing court order interdict that prevents students from disrupting campus operations, following on-going violence at the Alice campus as well. Eleven UFH students were arrested yesterday (Wednesday) for pelting motorists, public order police as well as for damaged property.
The Student Representative Council lamented what they call a ‘deafening silence’ by the VC as the institution mourns the death of two students who were friends, stabbed to death one week after another. Yonela Boli was stabbed by a fellow student who was also his partner. She is currently in court. A week later, this February, the eye witness to the incident, Olwethu Tshefu was stabbed by a contracted staff member at the Alice campus. Another student was raped by a local politician.
On Tuesday, Alice campus students hurled vehicles with stones and slowed down traffic on the R63. A truck carrying food for KFC was looted while tyres and other rubbles were burnt on the road. A state vehicle was damaged.
James Nqabeni, the President of the SRC said Vice Chancellor, must resign or deal with the ‘burning issues’. He quoted philosopher Frantz Fanon, “When we revolt, it is not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
The SRC is demanding safety and security, to not be excluded because of lack of finance, their monthly National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NFSAS) food and book allowances, which they claim the university is withholding. They also want well-resourced structures to deal with mental issues that affect students.
“Student deaths have become a norm here. In 2019, the UFH Alice campus lost ten lives through crime and suicide. This year we have already lost three students, with another committing suicide. We are aware of a number of attempted suicides with the most recent one being this past Saturday morning. We are taken aback by the silence of the university’s management,” said Nqabeni.
According to the university’s Thandi Mapukuta, Director for Institutional Advancement, most of these incidents happened off-campus, but the impact on the victims and the university community is no less profound. On Tuesday, management suspended academic activities until further notice. “It has been a few weeks of extraordinary violence. In the next few days we will host an interfaith event, drawing together community and traditional leaders to bring together the university community to commemorate the lives lost and call for an end to this cycle of senseless and gratuitous violence.”
Addressing the matter of historical debt, Mapukuta said some students do not qualify to register, despite the recommendations by Minister Blade Nzimande. According to the SRC, up to 3 000 students are unable to register for this year as they still owe the university millions of tuition and residence fees. “We are trying to find amicable solutions but the students have opted for a disruptive protest. All possible avenues are being explored to assist financially excluded students. They cannot all register as this will bring the university to its knees,” she said.
Nqabeni, however, argues that, “This directly undermines the struggles of the 'Fees Must Fall' campaign and it reverses all the gains that the South African students have won in the FMF. The Vice Chancellor undermines the agreement reached by the South African Union of Students and Minister Dr Blade Nzimande to allow students who have a debt to register. He makes arrogant statements such as, ‘Education is like a car, if you don’t afford it. It must be repossessed’. Mapukuta added that the Student Counselling Unit is available to provide a special programme for psychological support scaled up to the immediate demand for all students who need it.
The student body claims that there is a shortage of security personnel, but there is enough private security when there are students protests, charging the university a daily rate. They are demanding a safe green route for students to be able to walk safely at night from town or the library.
Lieutenant General Liziwe Ntshinga, the Provincial Commissioner said, “The SAPS recognises the constitutional right of students to express their discontent, however, if that right continues to be abused unchecked, the police are obligated to step in and diffuse the situation.”
The eleven (11) students aged between 18 and 29 appeared in the Alice Magistrate court today (Thursday) on charges relating to Public Violence and Violation of the National Road Traffic Amendment Act. Other charges may be added as investigations continue.
Students claim that they were brutally attacked by the police inside their residences when they were not inciting any violence. According to the university, there have been no reported incidents of student injuries by Thursday afternoon.