Opinion

OPINION: Writing Examinations at UCT, a Right Wronged

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi speaks at the UCT Assembly held on 01 November 2017 (Pic: Loyola Nyathi/ Vernac News)


Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi

I cannot defend the rule of law in the Republic of South Africa — the rule of law and the Constitution for which President Zuma has often shown contempt — and not defend it equally in the University of Cape Town(UCT) at a time when it is engulfed by a state of emergency.

The final examinations for 2017 were expected to commence on 15 November. According to an official announcement on examination arrangements, the university management decided to take extraordinary steps. These include erecting a fortified marquee on the rugby field on the upper campus as the main examination venue (the exam centre) in order to secure the examination centre in ways that are different to the university’s regular arrangements. These extraordinary steps include a deplorable heavy presence of the South African Police Services and PSIRA-accredited private security.

As a human rights activist, a postgraduate student, a teacher, and a member of the University Council for the time being; I am opposed the militarisation of UCT under the disguise of enforcing a court order in the current circumstances of threats of disruption by protesters. I am opposed to the self-serving contempt for academic freedom and provocation of members of the university community by the university management.

I oppose these in the same way I opposed the delay by President Zuma in the release of the report by the Commission on Higher Education and implementation of free education for all in South Africa.

At UCT, and on the eve of examination preparations, the vast majority of students still support the plan to proceed with examinations as scheduled, given the hard work that went into completing the syllabus. But, in an environment of ongoing legitimate protests, they also ask that a number of important measures must first be implemented by the university management in order to ensure that all students are adequately prepared to write their examinations. Such measures include acceding to demands for free education in the form of a no increase to 2018 fees and no financial exclusions. 

And so even for those students who support the plan to proceed with examinations, preparations and writing in a militarised campus still carries a stigma attached to the brutality of the apartheid regime. The environment produces intense levels of anxiety. The presence of an armed security force and police dogs, the sight of an examination center in the form of fortified marquee, the arrest of students on charges of public indecency; serve as a calculated intimidation strategy that heightens tensions and militate against our cherished academic freedom. 

Private security guards with German Sheperds guarding the ‘November Hall’ on UCT Rugby Fields (Pic: Wandile Kasibe)

It is no exaggeration to say that the militarisation of UCT is yet another reminder to many inside its premises that the institution remains, in essence, an extention of colonialism, trapped by authoritarian rule that employs fear for retribution and reprisal as a tool for control.

At UCT we have entered the Age of Amnesia.

And thatโ€™s just the kind of tension that the university management has been expert at exploiting in the name of discharging its contractual obligations to privileged white students — at a great cost to the very same students, academic freedom, as well as the rule of law on campus.

Earlier on, UCT was granted an interdict by the Western Cape High Court against the disruption of university activities. The interdict comes as a response to the recent wave of #FeesMustFall protests calling for a number of demands, including free decolonised education for all. The interdict effectively means that students found disrupting any academic activity โ€“ disrupting lectures, setting off fire alarms, blocking entrances to campus โ€“ will be in contempt of court, and may be arrested as a result. Contempt of court is a criminal offence.

Students walk past the heavily militarized UCT Rugby field as private security keep guard (Wandile Kasibe)

What concerns most of us is that, in its brandishing of the court interdict, the university management denudes the protest action of its political nature. It demonstrates underhand motives of acting as though indictments of protesters will put an end to the struggle. And yet we all know that at the heart of the protests is a seething sense of injustice that prevails among university students and South Africans at large at the failure of the state and universities to provide free, quality and decolonised education to South Africans. Shifting attention away from that will lead to further sporadic violence that weaken the important institutions meant to collectively find lasting solutions to challenges we are facing.

Forcing students to prepare for examinations in a militarised campus and to write examinations in a fortified marquee plainly infringes the right of freedom of movement as well as the culture of academic freedom. And it constitutes a substantial intervention in our social lives, in the face of an increasing number of student suicide deaths and a large backlog of unattended cases of mental health problems weighing down on students. 

It is unnecessary to multiply examples. When these challenges are considered objectively, many will readily accepted that the unilateral extraordinary step of militarising the campus need to be rescinded urgently. In addition, any proposal on fee increase for 2018 must be subjected to a proper consultation process with all relevant stakeholders in order to prevent financial exclusions that infringe on the right of students of access to education 

It is obvious that the middle ground needs to be re-created at UCT, that the university management’s examination arrangements (if they survive) must be stripped off the high-handedness, and that a sustained dialogue is essential until workable solutions subscribed to by all are found. A creative road to a successful conclusion of the 2017 academic year could, with time, still be imagined and given a chance.

But the cacophonous colonial era tactics of the university management are provocative and not good at the middle ground. Even symbolically, they are nowhere to be found on the rugby sport grounds. This academic year could end badly. A sustained militarisation of UCT on the basis of discharging a mandate to stage examinations by the university would lead directly to violence. It must be avoided.

In university’s character as a place for learning and teaching, not in more police vans and police dogs, lies the bright future of every member of good will in the university community. I commit myself into doing my part to find workable solutions to ensure that we make the enjoyment human rights by all real.

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a human rights activist and a member of UCT community

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Vernac News. 

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