Protest closes Natal campus

June 7, 1996

The University of Durban-Westville in South Africa is due to reopen on Monday, following weeks of protests and a management coup by students and staff.

Since mid-May the campus has suffered violent protests, court proceedings, break-ins, a management coup and the arrest for trespassing of a member of staff.

At the height of the troubles Sibusiso Bengu, the education minister, ordered a judicial commission of inquiry into the university.

The protests were ostensibly over student financial problems, unsatisfactory work contracts for staff, and weak management. But at the heart of the trouble is the politics surrounding the appointment of a new vice chancellor.

The student representative council and Combined Staff Association, both dominated by black consciousness leaders, want as vice chancellor Itumeleng Mosala, former president of the Azanian People's Organisation and chief director of higher education in the department of education.

The university's ANC-aligned management, along with many academics and some council members, have reportedly blocked Professor Mosala's appointment, claiming that the selection committee which chose him was biased and illegal.

"There is a belief among many academics that the university is at the sharp edge of a new struggle for control of the tertiary education system by Africanists with revolutionary rhetoric and programmes, who are fundamentally challenging the ANC and the new government's education policies," said one senior academic.

Lectures were suspended on May 14, when protesters damaged the administration building, and trouble escalated after the university council closed the campus.

At a meeting two days later, students and staff agreed on a vote of no confidence in the university's management and set up a transitional management council. On May 21, although management had obtained a court interdict restoring them to office, staff and students staged a lock-out.

The following day police fired rubber bullets at thousands of stone-throwing students, who damaged police vehicles and those belonging to a private security group. The police moved in in force and seized control of the campus. On May 23, an emergency meeting of council itself collapsed when students reportedly threatened members. No deal was forged on the vice chancellor issue, but agreement was reached that some managers would return, some would leave and some new managers would be appointed. Negotiations are continuing.

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