The “stakeholder conference” in Kempton Park today (October 3) called by the South African government to discuss ways of dealing with the crisis on campuses is the second such conference in 20 years. The first was called in 1996 following protests about the financial exclusion of poor students from universities and technicons.
What has changed since then is the widespread use of the internet, Facebook, Twitter and messaging programs such was Whatsapp that today keep students across the country in almost instant contact. At that first stakeholder gathering, it was agreed that there would be no exclusions of university or technicon students because of lack of funds; funds existed and could be found.
However, a “let-out” clause was included in the agreement which noted that non exclusion was an “intention” and that its implementation would “depend on circumstances”. This was accepted by the student groups and trade unions present because they felt they would be further consulted should circumstances change. But they were not called again to a “national meeting of stakehlders” — and circumstances were apparently deemed to have changed.
Two years later, because the agreement was not kept, several campuses were in uproar. But the protests, in the absence of social media, were fragmented. However demonstrating students, boycotting classes, were often confronted with riot police and private security guards who tear gassed and baton charged them.
One of the main focuses of the protests in March 1998 was the University of Transkei (Unitra) where students reported being tear gassed in their beds in residences and some were injured jumping out of second storey windows to escape. A radiology student, Mlindeli Majama, was hospitalisd with a dislocated elbow and severe cuts and abrasions after being beaten by police batons.
Eventually, the protests subsided, but the causes, especially the question of university fees and “upfront” payments required for registration, remained. It has taken 18 years before, once again, the issue has burst to the surface, this time with students trying to hold the government to its promises of free and equal education for all.