Chaos leads to cancellation of Higher Education National Convention

After repeated disruptions students threatened Minister Blade Nzimande when he was about to address them

Disappointment after chaotic education convention cancelled

Johannesburg - Extreme disappointment was expressed by all parties involved in the Higher Education National Convention after the event was cancelled when chaos erupted and organisers decided it was unsafe to go ahead with the scheduled programme.

The weekend’s convention in Midrand was the culmination of months of consultation between former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and other convenors including Prof. Mary Metcalfe, Justice Yvonne Makgoro, Sello Hatang and Jabu Mabuza and government, parents, civil society and student leaders on how to resolve the crisis in higher education.

The opening plenary session was disrupted several times during the course of Saturday morning, but was finally dissolved after students threatened Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande when he was about to address them.

The marquee tent had to be evacuated due to fears for everyone’s safety.

"We had agreements with all the student representatives prior, but it’s a matter of how you socialise those agreements into the larger group," Moseneke told media afterwards.

"There’s no way we can have a meaningful discussion if we’re not prepared to listen to each other. The who’s who of South African education was here today and we couldn’t get anywhere. It’s truly sad."

Nzimande and all the university vice chancellors present left as the chaos erupted and students started throwing chairs and water bottles at each other.

Moseneke said described the fracas as "unacceptable".

EFF Students Command Secretary General Phiwaba Madokwe denied allegations that the EFF came to disrupt proceedings. She said they objected with the programme director’s statement right at the outset that everyone attending the convention was considered equal.

"How can I be considered equal to the man who will be handing me a suspension letter on Monday because of what I say here today?" she said.

Lack of content

"It is the students who have sacrificed everything to start this conversation nationwide, but we are forced to sit and have the same conversations with people who think nothing of us.

"We didn’t come here to fight. If we wanted to disrupt this conference it wouldn’t even have started. We wanted to talk but on our own terms."

Precious Banda, a student leader from the Young Communist League, said they came prepared for serious debates and were deeply saddened and disappointed.

"It was an opportunity for an historic event to take place and to go away with solutions. Instead the event was hijacked by people grandstanding against agreements we made prior to coming here. These people lack content and arguments and thus resort to disruptions."

Sasco’s Tembani Makata said she was saddened that they were misled over the months leading up to the convention that everyone involved was looking for solutions to make sure the higher education doesn’t collapse.

"I think it was deliberately planned," she said.

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, who was part of the convening committee, said the main fear was for the safety of the people and for the infrastructure at the Eskom Advanced Institute of Learning, where the convention was taking place.

"We feared for the infrastructure and for the safety of these children," he said.

He said they would continue to look at ways to create safe spaces for conversations about higher education. He was not worried that the violence of the day would spill over onto campuses.