UWC activists agree on demands but not methods

Exam disruption sets off student backlash

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Photo of UWC protest
UWC students protest in October 2015. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

On Monday, a team made up of UWC students acting under the name of the #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement disrupted exams in both the morning and afternoon sessions. Students with fire extinguishers entered exam venues, forcing evacuations that left many nonparticipating students angry and frustrated.

Since FMF’s inception it has acted as the umbrella organisation under which several other student organisations identify. These include UWC’s branches of the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC, aligned to the EFF), Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania (PASMA, the student branch of the PAC), and South African Students’ Congress (SASCO, which is ANC-aligned).

Monday’s disruptions exposed a rift in these previously united organisations. Now, only PASMA continues to offer support for more forceful methods.

The organisations are united on demands on four issues. The foremost of these is reinstatement of 144 UWC workers dismissed at the end of last year. This is an event students involved in FMF feel personal responsibility for. “We were the ones who told them not to go to work,” said PASMA member Siyasanga Zanomhlaba Ndwayi. According to Ndwayi, attempts to engage with university management to reinstate fired workers have been fruitless for eight months. The disruptions in exam venues were a last-ditch effort to reach both management and a growing indifference in students, who feel the workers’ cause “does not involve them.”

Ndwayi said that while the initial decision to shift tactics was a collective one made by all FMF affiliated organisations, something changed before the incident actually took place.

Last week Tuesday, explained Ndwayi, there was a meeting with the political heads of each organisation about the possibility of exam disruptions at which EFFSC and SASCO members were present. He said it was then each leader’s responsibility to take the idea back to their constituencies and gauge support. Up until the night before the disruptions, “it seemed EFF was on board” with the plan, said Ndwayi. SASCO did not show interest in FMF’s new tactics.

It was only after a backlash from students that the EFFSC distanced itself from the disruptions, Ndwayi claimed. The UWC FMF Facebook page contains hundred of comments from angry students: “The masses will not stand with a group who claims to fight for the fulfillment of rights while violating the rights of all students in the process”; “Why should exams be interrupted because university management does not respond? It’s not management that’s sitting those exam venues”; “They [FMF] don’t even know the difference between a CALL to join and being FORCED through violence!”

Songezo Booi, another PASMA member, explained that it was due to this reaction that EFFSC has “distanced” itself from the movement. “Students can be selfish,” he said of the naysayers. “They want to join the struggle when it’s convenient to them … When shit hits the fan they distance themselves.” He called them “sell outs” and “betrayers” to the cause.

UWC EFFSC released a statement on Facebook denying any involvement in the disruptions: “As a structure, we were never consulted about the shutting down of exam venues and we never mandated any of our members to shut down ANY exam venue,” said the statement.

When asked about the statement, Booi said that students in EFFSC had “chosen the academic over the struggle.”

The disruptions, Booi said, were a “publicity success”. He said: “When engagements fail, you resort to other measures as a continuation of the struggle.”

When asked if there would be more disruptions in the two weeks of examinations to come, Booi and Ndwayi said strategy is decided in mass meetings on an almost daily basis. When pressed to estimate, both men only said, “the struggle continues.”

In a media release, the university said: “examinations will continue as scheduled for the rest of the examination period, and that the implementation of appropriate security measures will continue”.

TOPICS:  Tertiary Education

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