Protests at University of Cape Town

I know there are protests at UCT (and have been for a few years). When did they start, are they still going and what kind of impact are they having on life for students?

The FeesMustFall protests started in Wits in mid October 2015, and quickly spread to UCT and other universities. The protests arose from a proposed 10.5% fee increase for the year of 2016. Since then, the protests have continued throughout recent years, normally reaching a peak at times when fee increases are announced, or rumours spread that fee increases are impending.

The UCT SRC has been one of the most vocal groups in the protests. Protests at UCT were most intense towards the end of 2016, which resulted in the university closing for a month, and certain examinations being deferred to January 2017.

This year, while there have been sporadic protests regarding the treatment of workers at UCT, fee-related protests have only reignited within the last few weeks. The protests have focused on continuing the call for free, decolonised education for all South Africans, starting with a 0% fee increment for the year of 2018, as well as other changes to the functioning of the University, such as a re-examination of DP requirements and drastic improvements to UCT’s mental health facilities, following a number of student suicides in recent years. UCT management has engaged with some of the demands, and is revisiting DP policy, as well as the availability of support for students facing depression, but has stated that it cannot afford a 0% fee increment, as this would result in a sizeable deficit. Furthermore, the much anticipated Fees Commission Report was leaked, which suggests that free education for all is not currently attainable. However, protesting students have rejected both these assertions, pointing to the resources wasted by government mismanagement, as well as the high costs of maintaining a private security presence on campus, which UCT has done during student protests. The result of the protests was that residence dining halls haven’t functioned properly for more than a week, and campus was closed for several days over the last few weeks. However, despite attempts at disruption, the university has vowed to complete the academic year, and lectures, tutorials, pracs and tests have for the most part continued.

The protests are a lot more impactful on students living in UCT residences, especially those on Upper and Lower Campus. Fire alarms are routinely set off, and with the temporary closing of the dining halls, 2 x R55 meal vouchers have been allocated per day, which can be spent at various nearby restaurants and grocery stores. The extent to which this affects you depends largely on your personality. Some students find the disruptions upsetting and intimidating, others are unaffected.

With regards to the academic program, the protests have had a significant effect. Many courses choose to end the year early, and have cancelled the remaining week of lectures. Others have shifted to a blended learning approach, which incorporates the extensive use of online materials. Some have chosen to continue as normal as far as possible. Because the library is often shut down, and jammie services disrupted, it can be a lot harder to work through content, but faculties generally take this into account, and most tests in the last two weeks have been made such that they cannot affect your grades negatively.

In general, unless specifically trying to cause a conflict, students are not in any real danger from the protesters. However, fire extinguishers are often set off when lectures are disrupted, which may put asthmatic students at risk. Furthermore, the increased presence of police and security on campus has lead to some reported instances of racial profiling and police brutality towards protesters. While it is generally not difficult to avoid dangerous situations, the university undoubtedly can become a more stressful environment for students.

It is very difficult to predict what will happen going forward. The university intends for the end of year exams to go ahead as planned, and will make use of very strict security measures to ensure that this happens. However, it is impossible to know for certain what effect protests will have.

Personally, while the protests are undoubtedly significant and impactful, the majority of the year has proceeded unaffected, and this for me is certainly not a reason to avoid UCT. The protest provide a chance to learn from and engage with students facing real and difficult challenges, and to expand your worldview. For me, this is very important. The protests will definitely impact your academic year, but this impact is unlikely to prevent you completing your courses and qualifying, and so I do not personally believe it should be viewed as a determining factor.