Pay gap fuels university protest

Posted on March 9, 2014


The wage and welfare gap is proving a potent political weapon. And it was wielded with considerable effect at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape (UWC) last week when a mass meeting of students and workers called for the immediate resignation of both the rector and his deputy.

Student council (SRC) president Msingathi Kula received loud applause from uniformed cleaning staff in the audience when he denounced the recent pay increase for rector Brian O’Connell that took his remuneration package up to R2 million a year. The women workers, some of whom have worked as cleaners at the university for more than 20 years, protest that their take-home pay is R2 500 a month.

“For 20 years I have worked here, before they outsourced and later, and still I am getting R2 700 and after deductions, R2 500 every month,” complains Louise Ndamase. She is supported by a chorus of her workmates.

And while pay is their major, it is not their only, complaint: they feel they are “invisible” to the powers that be, mere cogs in a wheel that keeps the campus functioning. Most remain members of the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), but are also scathing about the union and the way they feel it has treated them.

“The union, it did nothing,” is a common refrain. Some of those who remain members maintain they do so “because there is nothing else” and they apparently hope that things, through the union, might improve.

They now pin their hopes on the demand of the students for the public protector to institute a full audit of the university’s financial affairs, convinced that allegations of financial impropriety are probably accurate; that senior management figures have benefitted from the millions spent on various jobs put out to tender by the university; that their financial plight might be improved.

They, the students and the academic opposition to the present university management have also been bolstered by a letter from Rhodes University vice-chancellor Saleem Badat who was tipped as the front runner to succeed O’Connell at UWC. Withdrawing from the running, Badat claimed that the UWC selection process was “lacking in integrity” and that “self-serving interests and a certain kind of chauvinism appear to be rampant”.

However, complaints about “erosion of academic freedom” and the tightening of controls over meetings and the use of university facilities seem to have been left largely to some academics and the student leaders to campaign about. Central to this is the long-running battle over the chairmanship of the university council, a matter that is now before the high court. An apparently inquorate meeting of the council removed the incumbent, and replaced him.

“But there does not seem to be any ideology or principle involved, it just seems to be a matter of power and money,” says an academic who wishes — “people are being victimised” — to remain anonymous.

All that seems clear amid a great swirl of allegation, of rumour and speculation is that there has been an apparent lack of transparency and a breakdown in communication between university management and a large part of its constituency. “It is, to put it mildly, a mess,” another academic concedes.