[OPINION] UCT is being held hostage

This past week has seen unprecedented violence at the University of Cape Town.

A number of concerned alumni have been instrumental in drafting this petition to the Chair of the UCT Council, Sipho Pityana and Vice Chancellor, Max Price.

To: Chair of the University of Cape Town Council Mr Sipho Pityana & Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price

We write as alumni who have been watching the situation at UCT unfold with a deep sense of frustration, sadness and also anger.

As concerned and engaged citizens we have seen the #FeesMustFall movement start as a protest against university fees and then later increasingly infiltrated by what we believe to be a criminal element.

In addition, we have witnessed the destruction of university property, the torching of the Vice Chancellor's office and the burning of artwork and the abominable act of throwing human faeces around. As outsiders to the situation we have seen very little being done to hold the wrongdoers to account. It seems as if the university has bent over backwards to accommodate the protesters' ever-growing and often unrealistic demands.

It is a fact that free higher education is not the university's to give. That is the role of the state. In our view it is also not possible to 'decolonise' entire curricula overnight although we believe universities are the right places to discuss such transformation initiatives. On the basis of these two demands alone, UCT could be shut down for months, if not years. They simply cannot be solved immediately.

The university has been closed for almost a month. A shut down is antithetical to the very idea of a university and it is fundamentally undemocratic for a small group to hold an entire university to hostage. We note the UCT statement of 18 October 2016 that sets forth the basis for engagement with protesting students to ensure the academic year is completed. One of the bases is, 'Possible amnesty to the students who have been interdicted, suspended or expelled due to their involvement in the February Shackville protests.'

It seems very difficult to understand why amnesty should be considered for criminal actions specifically given the disruptions on campus over the past two days. It is also puzzling why this specific group is treated differently to other students who have been sanctioned. The only reason could be that they are holding the university hostage and bullying them into submission. The protesters have shown that they are willing to place the interests of individual student leaders, charged with criminal activity above the interests of thousands of other students, staff and support staff. We are of the view that an amnesty will only seek to increase what some have called the 'Messianic fervour' of students and lead to a greater lack of accountability and more wanton destruction. The university will in essence be supporting lawlessness.

Given the unacceptable violence of the past two days, we do not believe that the protesting students are seeking solutions in good faith.

As concerned alumni we therefore call on the UCT Council and management to do the following:

  • Open UCT with immediate effect;

  • Deploy additional security (be that SAPS or private security). This 'hard' option has been chosen by Wits university and has largely succeeded. Restraint must be exercised by all parties;

  • No negotiation with those who engage or have engaged in violence and criminal action. The law should be left to run its course;

  • No amnesty for those who have been involved in violent activity;

  • A full examination timetable be issued and adhered to.

UCT needs to take a firm stance against those trying to destroy a fine institution. If this academic year is lost, 2017 will be too. Of that there can be no doubt.

Signed: 18 October 2016

Concerned UCT Alumni

To sign the petition go to https://www.change.org/p/saveuct-open-our-university-and-stop-the-violence

Judith February is a law graduate of the University of Cape Town and one of the co-drafters of this petition.