Arson attack at Fort Hare

October 10, 1997

PROTESTS, fire and theft are plaguing South Africa's most famous black university, the University of Fort Hare.

The university is meeting strong resistance to a retrenchment exercise which could cost 900 people their jobs and undermine the local economy in the tiny town of Alice in the Eastern Cape.

It is also devastated by the theft of valuable African National Congress archive material and computer equipment, stored with a collection of famous African art, from its Govan Mbeki Foundation.

Both collections are now under permanent guard, and private security firms and local police have been called in to replace the university's security staff, many of whom have lost their jobs.

A senior delegation from the national education ministry visited Fort Hare, alma mater to many of the country's leaders, last week to investigate the trouble.

Arson experts from Pretoria were called in following a fire that destroyed the fine arts department. Last week there was an arson attack on the university's Christian Union Hall but guards managed to keep the resulting blaze under control.

The roots of the trouble appear to lie in the university's "downsizing" exercise to shed staff numbers inflated because of the bad practices of the former government, a university spokesman said.

An academic, who did not want to be named, said Fort Hare was "overburdened with staff, and now financially down the drain. It's trying to cut back and concentrate more on core business, but obviously so many people losing their jobs was going to cause trouble".

The spokesman said shedding of up to 900 administrators, academics and ancillary staff had already begun. The process has met fierce resistance from Nehawu, a union representing workers, which has staged a protest and go-slow strike.

The spokesman added that the unions have mainly been in disagreement with management over "technical" aspects of the retrenchment drive and that their actions have not disrupted the university's academic programme.

The situation is complicated. Reports in the media talk of deep conflict between staff, management, private security guards and bandits. Several people suspect that sacked security guards may be the culprits.

However, university registrar Isaac Mabindisa, has rejected that theory. Fort Hare had been having crime problems since long before the guards were retrenched, he added.

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