Rugby tournament on hold over student protests

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Fears that student protesters could disrupt Varsity Cup rugby matches have led the annual tournament’s organisers to call off next week’s events at universities countrywide.

The matches would have been played on Monday at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as well as universities in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom.

Varsity Cup chief executive Duitser Bosman said they cancelled the matches after rugby fans beat up student protesters who took to the field at a match at the University of the Free State on Monday this week.

“We do not condone any form of violence, discrimination or disruptive behaviour. The safety of students, players and spectators is of immense priority to us,” said Bosman.

“The current challenges facing universities and students are a concern. We have compassion and respect for the situation and hope that amicable solutions can be reached with all parties.”

Students protests against university fee increases and outsourcing of campus labour launched late last year have continued when the new academic year started.

Postponing next week’s Varsity Cup matches was meant to “allow universities across the country the opportunity to address various challenges faced at their respective campuses”.

Bosman said the inter-varsity rugby tournament has been running for the past nine years and has “brought together students, spectators and aspiring rugby stars from all communities”.

UCT spokeswoman Pat Lucas said their rugby team would have played against the University of Pretoria on Monday.

“Both UCT and the Varsity Cup organisers took safety and security into consideration in light of what transpired at another Varsity Cup match earlier this week,” said Lucas.

“UCT also took the decision to allow space for students and staff to reflect on the current issues in the higher education sector.”

The University of Pretoria was yesterday meanwhile still closed following violent confrontations between black and white students as matters took on a racial overtone.

Former Afrikaans universities have been blamed for being unaccommodating to students of colour, leading to protests against Afrikaans-language instruction.

Stellenbosch University yesterday referred any queries to Varsity Cup organisers while the University of the Western Cape (UWC) condemned “racist statements and hate speech on campus”.

The university’s spokesman Luthando Tyhalibongo shared pictures with the media of hate speech against white South Africans spray-painted on campus walls.

“UWC is disgusted at the racist statements and hate speech that have been discovered all over campus this morning. We condemn these cowardly acts committed under the cover of darkness,” said Tyhalibongo.

“We are an intellectual home for students from diverse backgrounds, race and gender. Any attempt to threaten our unity, by inciting division of our students and staff along racial lines will not be tolerated.

“We are investigating this matter and once the culprits are identified appropriate action will be taken against them.”

UWC’s director of Sport, Mandla Gagayi, said they were cautious that “what happened in Bloemfontein can happen anywhere”.

He said UWC has already hosted a Varsity Cup match and has played two others elsewhere in the country since the tournament started a few weeks ago.

“This tournament is very important and sport has always played a role of bringing everyone together. We have done that successfully,” said Gagayi.

“Our matches have not been disrupted. This university won’t panic and fill the stadium with security guards. We may have concerns but we don’t want to make the stadium look like a military base.”

A joint statement from various vice-chancellors at universities countrywide condemned the “nature and form of disruptive protests and escalating violence at some of our institutions”.

“It appears that these violent acts are being planned and committed by groups and individuals with a singular intent, to deliberately disrupt and destabilise our universities through intimidation and violence,” read the statement.

“We cannot condone some of the methods used during several of these protest actions. We particularly condemn all acts of violence, criminal acts, damage to property and behaviour that impinges on the constitutional rights of others.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation yesterday said it would step in to assist students and resolve the current crisis.

It said a “group of like-minded active citizens have joined forces to offer independent mediation, conflict resolution and facilitation services to the universities and student movements that request it”.

“This help will be provided under the name #AccessThuto, meaning “access education”,” it said.

“We are at a crisis point and have to act now.”

#AccessThuto would be led by former Constitutional Court Justice Yvonne Mokgoro and the foundation’s chief executive Sello Hatang. Neeshan Balton, chief executive of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, would also be among its leadership.

“#AccessThuto will seek to listen to students, academic staff and management at universities to help neutralise the conflict currently experienced at universities,” read the statement.

“It will use a network of organisations and individuals to provide professional, independent and non-partisan help to the university community as it grapples with difficult issues of transformation.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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