What began as a visit to the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics (AGCLE), housed by Rhodes University in Grahamstown, at the beginning of this week, ended in my witnessing a campus-wide protest about fee increases.
AGCLE hosted a two-day roundtable on Existential Conversations which philosophically address the grim realities about life in general and in Grahamstown in particular. It was fitting that last minute changes to the roundtable’s venue were because of protests.
The Black Students’ Movement and the university’s SRC, in solidarity with neighbouring Eastcape Midlands College, began the protest on Monday 19 October and staged an orderly march through Grahamstown yesterday morning which was supported by academia and workers. The use of water cannons to disperse protestors at Eastcape Midlands College on Monday sparked racial debate – it was telling that police did not resort to the same measures at Rhodes.
I’m still unclear as to the true motivation for the march but, from conversations with students and staff can hazard two guesses. Firstly, that it was an expected consequence of the contagion from the earlier student protests at Wits and UCT; and, secondly, that Rhodes University had been on the precipice of a legitimate collective outcry for some time and that, fuelled by the agitation of the “born-frees”, felt compelled to shed its non-defiant and placid reputation. For whatever reason, yesterday’s march was hailed, by the university’s Senate, as being a watershed moment for Rhodes in what was described as a watershed year for tertiary education in South Africa. The Senate thanked students for the manner in which they conducted themselves by mentioning that the Rhodes University march was one of a few in the country that was non-violent.
Moving, honest and, at times humorous placards voiced the students’ discontent.
Their discontent, for which they sought responses from the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Mabizela and his colleagues, came down to the following demands:
- Protesting students should not be victimised
- A 15% decline in fees
- Removal of interest on late payments
- Removal of additional fees for students from African countries
- A signed commitment by Dr. Mabizela that academically-sound, but financially needy students, not be excluded
The Senate agreed that it was students’ Constitutional right to hold demonstrations and reaffirmed that their victimisation would not be tolerated.
When the students’ 15% decline in fees was weighed against Dr. Blade Nzimande’s proposed increase, capped at 6%, the university would lose R54m – which would impact the students’ experience during the next financial year. It was mentioned that the library, alone, needed R29m for books and running costs. The university would look at other ways, such as cutting the entertainment budget to lower expenses.
Rhodes currently has two payment options: either full fees paid by June or a monthly debit order system. If payment is received late then interest is levied. It was highlighted that this interest is not held in reserves but is utilised to offset the university’s other expenditure. The decision on whether the interest on late payments be removed was not reached in the three hours that the Senate had to deliberate. It was an important revenue stream and the Senate appealed to the students to allow more time for them to reach a satisfactory decision.
The Senate agreed to consult with the sector on how costs for African students could be addressed optimally.
The response to the final demand was received with resounding support as Dr. Mabizela pledged that he would not financially-exclude students of good academic standing. He mentioned that he had previously stood surety for deserving students and would do so in future.
I respected Dr. Mabizela and his team, not only for responding to the students’ demands timeously but doing so in the cold and rain yesterday evening!
The majority of students were satisfied with the responses they received from the Senate but there was a mixed response when an appeal was made for the resumption of the academic programme today in order to catch up the time lost due to protests – as exams are scheduled to start next week Monday.
Some students were also sceptical of the financial measures that were proposed and questioned why the Senate didn’t cut its own salaries or do away with residential Sub Wardens and, hence, paying them R2 000 a month. It became clear that you can’t please everyone all the time.
There is a crisis in education in South Africa and in higher education in particular. If the inclusive and solutions-orientated manner in which the students and Senate addressed the crisis is any indication, could it be that Rhodes is a place where leaders cannot afford not to learn?