In black designer suit and matching stylish sunshades, Wits University vice-chancellor and principal Adam Habib descended on a swarm of students protesting tuition and residence fee increments just before noon on Friday to address them.
He was escorted to them by hired bouncers and university security personnel and also accompanied by senior management staff members Pamela Dube and Andrew Crouch.
Students would not allow him to address them unless he was to tell them “one thing and one thing only: no-fee increments for 2016”.
And so, the singing of this mantra by enraged students waylaid Habib before he could reach them at the entrance in which they had gathered and surrounded him.
They burst into one of their popular “revolutionary” songs: “Thina siyamzonda, siyamzonda uHabib noma bathini siyamzonda uHabib.
The song in isiZulu translates to “we hate Habib, no matter what they say we hate him”.
This was just the beginning of what would become a long day for Habib. He appeared distressed most of the time.
Students forced him to go to the concourse at Senate House, a building on the administrative campus in Braamfontein that also houses his office.
Habib spent the entire day seated on two pillows on the floor, completely surrounded by his students.
The students kept close guard of him, and when he asked to be excused to go to the bathroom, a few male students accompanied him.
When he asked for fresh air outside, a crowd followed him again.
‘Not held against his will’
A statement issued by the university at 3pm on Friday implied Habib was in the concourse entirely on his own will. “Habib is currently sitting amongst students on the Senate House Ground Floor to try to understand all their grievances.
“He does not have the authority to overturn the council’s decision on the 10.5% increase for 2016, but has requested that the council executive meet to discuss this matter,” it said.
The statement also alluded that students barred Habib from addressing them. “… Habib tried to address students since 09:00 today but was not afforded the opportunity.”
To loud cheers from students, student leader Mcebo Freedom Dlamini of the ANC Youth League told the crowd Habib was not being held against his will, but “we’re bonding with him as our father, he’s our father … It must be clear to people that no one is being held hostage here.”
All hell broke loose when the rented bouncers launched an attack on students. The burly bouncers pepper sprayed and tear gassed students during the attack, which saw scores fleeing outside Senate House.
One student broke his leg during the melee and another suffered an asthma attack. Students put up a fight and managed to push the outnumbered bouncers out of Senate House.
“Habib called those people. How can they ambush us so quickly?” asked one student. “He’s the one that texted them,” retorted another student.
But Habib remained seated on his pillows in this pandemonium. He was still there about two hours after calm had returned and Randall Carolissen, chairperson of the university’s council, arrived from Durban to meet the students.
Talks with Carolissen got off to a rocky start, with neither side compromising their ground.
Students were not interested in any negotiations, but want a reversal of the decision to hike fees for 2016, Carolissen heard from Vuyani Pambo, campus leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command. “We don’t want sermons here. Our condition is clear: no-fee increments.”
To cacophonous heckling by students, Carolissen replied: “I came here to have a dialogue with students and to listen. I am not here to take instructions.”
Carolissen stood his ground that he could not just resolve that fees won’t go up next year, but would need to convene a council meeting to discuss the demand. “It’d be hugely irresponsible of me to commit to no fee. This university would shut down.”
But Dlamini hit back: “We’re not saying we want to study for free. We’re saying we don’t want to pay more than we’re already paying.”
Dlamini told Carolissen not to concern himself about free education demands. The fight for free university education will be taken to higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande, Dlamini said. “His day is coming.
“The university is not broke. The university has billions [of rands] in reserves. If your investments are not generating money for the university, then there’s a problem with you.”
Carolissen stood up to clarify: “I’m saying if we don’t have increase of student fees this university can’t function … I understand finance and economics. The issues of no-fee increases cannot be entertained. It will shut down the university”.
Habib addressed the crowd for the first time at about 12.30am on Saturday morning, upholding Carolissen’s views that they were not in position to take a decision there and then.
“I’ve been here [with you]. If you want to spend the rest of the night I’ll be here too. If we make this decision [now], legally it will be seen as having been made under pressure.”
He said while he agreed that fee increases were high, the university decided in their favour due to absence of increased subsidies from the government.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 10.5% [fee increase] is a burden on families. I do agree that 10.5% [fee increase] is high. I will recommend [to council] we bring it down provided there’s an increase from the state.”
The stalemate between students and the university officials continued until the early hours of Saturday morning. It was only after 5am that an agreement was reached.
Signed by Carolissen and Shaeera Kalla, the outgoing student representative council president, the agreement entailed compromises by both sides.
Students yielded up their position that they do not want any negotiations. Carolissen suspended the council decision to increase fees next year, and has opened negotiations.
“There will be no fee increments until negotiations reach an agreement. The negotiations pertaining to fee increments will resume anew,” said the agreement.
“In the eventuality of negotiations breaking down, the University will not revert to its initial decision.”
The agreement also said the executive committee of council “will advance the position of the students for a no fee increase at council”. A full council meeting will convene on Sunday.
But an outright victory for students in the overnight talks is that anyone that participated in the protest will not be charged. Management has earlier threatened disciplinary action over this week’s protest.
“There will be no disciplinary action taken against students or workers who participated in the protest, and no worker will face dismissal as a result of their participation in the protest,” said the agreement.
Wits will remain closed on Monday, according to university spokesperson Shirona Patel, “to allow council to report to a university assembly”.