University threatens legal action against student protest
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Students who continue occupying Bremner Building and others who post racist comments on social media websites could face prosecution, said University of Cape Town vice chancellor Max Price yesterday.
Price’s hard stand against students comes a day after their Rhodes Must Fall campaign reached its goal of having the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes removed from the campus. The statue is being temporarily removed though until a decision is made on its final destination.
Student protesters and some university staffers occupied Bremner on March 20 after one of their protests on campus. They vowed to occupy the building until the Rhodes statue was removed.
Price said protesters had breached the agreement they had with UCT leaders “informed students that failure to comply with the requirement that they end their occupation of the building will be unlawful”.
“(It) will be a contravention of the rules of conduct and will have disciplinary consequences. We also informed the occupiers that should they not comply, we will have no choice but to approach the high court for an order compelling them to do so,” said Price.
“We remain open to mediation and stand ready to engage with the occupier group should they accept our invitation regarding mediation.”
He said students have been “severely disrupting the work of UCT administration, including, from time-to-time, behavior that had the effect of harassing staff and evicting some from their offices, and disrupting meetings”.
“We have moved staff to work in other buildings and some have worked from home. We have tolerated this disruption to allow the process of consultation and decision on the removal of the Rhodes statue to run its course,” he said.
Price said the university would not tolerate violence, as witnessed during the Rhodes statue removal on Thursday.
Some students and members of political parties present – EFF, ANC and PAC – had pushed down the fencing that surrounded the statue.
EFF members had also stopped the truck removing the statue and wanted to push the statue off the back of the truck.
Price said: “We condemn the behaviour of a handful of students who broke through a cordon and vandalised the statue as it was being taken away. We will investigate charges against them.”
He said Rhodes Must Fall campaigners have also “crossed a line of acceptable protest, ignoring the SRC’s pleas, when they stormed into the (UCT) council meeting on Wednesday”.
“This behavior was completely unacceptable, challenged the authority of council, could have risked preventing council from completing its business, and will result in prosecutions of the students involved,” said Price.
He added: “I am also aware of the incidents of chants of ‘One Settler, One Bullet’ as was heard at both the council (Wednesday) meeting and at the occasion of the removal of the statue.
“I wish to express my dismay that this has happened, condemn all acts of intimidation and reckless utterances as they have no place in our democracy and are in serious conflict with the values of the university.
“They create an hostile environment for many members of the campus community. We are investigating referring these cases to the Human Rights Commission.”
Price said they have also been “disgusted by the volume and vitriol of racist comments made primarily in the online social media, but also some graffiti on the boards assembled for people to write comments on”.
“We are investigating every one of them. Most are under pseudonyms and cannot be traced. Where there are names, we have not been able to link any such postings to any UCT students or staff. But if we can, we will be determined in prosecuting the authors,” he said.
Rhodes Must Fall campaigner Busisiwe Nxumalo said they remained committed to occupying Bremner, which they renamed Azania House, “until all our demands are met”.
“We are still going to occupy the building. We want to fight for workers and make sure that students are heard. This whole system is not designed to cater for us. We are going to occupy indefinitely until all these problems are solved. We will get there,” she said.
Nxumalo said the removal from campus of the Rhodes statue was a “small victory”.
“It’s the beginning of a long road to decolonisation at UCT. We are trying to fight against institutional racism. Today is a starting point,” she said.
“We are happy that the statue fell. Many people didn’t believe in us. We had so many racist comments.”
Student representative council president Ramabina Mahapa said the student body had distanced itself from the Bremner occupation.
“We have called off the occupation but students are remaining. We said we could occupy until the statue has been removed. The statue has been removed. So we have done our part. But students want to remain in the building,” he said.
“We did mention that we would take a step back. We want to allow students in the Rhodes Must Fall movement to have their own thoughts. They must be able to sustain themselves and move forward.”
He added: “The SRC also needs to focus on other issues that are important.”
Mahapa said shortly after the statue was removed that “so many things could have gone wrong”.
“We managed to stop people who belonged to the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters party). They wanted to do something we didn’t agree on. We find that problematic. We tried to maintain law and order and they tried to agitate,” he said.
“They wanted the statue to removed from the truck and collapse on the ground.”
He said their mission remained transformation within UCT’s halls.
“Just removing a statue does not mean UCT has transformed. We need to deal with transformation,” said Mahapa.
“We are looking at issues of what is being taught. UCT is very Eurocentric. It does not value African thought. More needs to be done.”
Price said UCT had a “renewed focus on the transformation issues that clearly challenge us”.
“We have committed to concluding the review of symbols and names by the end of this year. We have created a space for black academic staff… to develop a programme within each academic department that addresses the issues of staff transformation,” he said.
Price said the Rhodes statue had been moved to a “safe place”.
Hannetjie du Preez, acting chief executive Heritage Western Cape (HWC), said the statue “forms part of the declared provincial heritage site known as the Upper Campus” on UCT.
By law, “no person may destroy, damage, deface, excavate, alter, remove from its original position, subdivide or change the planning status of any heritage site without a permit issued by the relevant heritage resources authority, in this case HWC”.
She said: “In light of concerns for the safety of the statue, an urgent application was made to HWC for the removal and temporary safe-keeping of the Rhodes statue by the university.
“HWC has issued a permit with conditions, including the appointment of a suitably qualified and experience heritage architect to oversee the removal and storage of the statue until the formal consultation processes can be concluded, a recommendation regarding the future of the statue formulated and a formal application to HWC be submitted within 90 days.”
UCT said it would “now engage in a public participation process to help determine the final venue of the statue”.