Student protesters force cancellation of South African convention

Minister's speech disrupted at event aimed at finding solutions to sector challenges

March 21, 2017
South Africa flag

A conference aimed at finding solutions to the issues in South African higher education has been cancelled because of persistent protesting.

The Higher Education National Convention, due to take place in Johannesburg over the weekend of the 18-19 March, ended early after student protesters disrupted higher education minister Blade Nzimande’s plenary speech, News24 reported.

Organisers were forced to order everyone out of the tent when protesters – dressed in clothing bearing socialist political party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) insignia – began throwing chairs and water bottles. Dr Nzimande was reported to have left the event after his security team ushered him out of the tent. Earlier, the convention had been similarly interrupted after students refused to let minority rights group AfriForum speak.

“What is he [Nzimande] going to say?” one student wearing an EFF t-shirt told a convener. “He’s not going to say anything we want to hear.”

Sharon Letlape, from EFF student command, told News24 they “collapsed the plenary” because “many people here aren’t here for our interests”.

The convention was eventually called off after Dikgang Moseneke, one of the organisers and former deputy justice of the constitutional court, said it could “no longer be meaningfully had”.

Mr Moseneke added he was saddened by the situation, since an “incredible amount of time” had been invested in crafting a “fully representative” programme to find “common solutions to the current education crisis”.

“The convention can no longer be meaningfully had,” he said. “We regret that the deterioration of the situation is of such a level that we cannot continue. The minister who was our guest and who we wanted to hear had to leave in circumstances that were unacceptable.

“There are formations here who would’ve very much wanted to continue. I am personally deeply saddened, so too my co-convenors. We have no stake instead of advancing the interests of our youth, who are the future of our country. We are going to regroup and dialogue continues.”

Drawing together 1,000 student leaders, vice-chancellors and other sector representatives, the forum had taken several months’ planning.

The event was aimed at finding a solution to South Africa's student finance crisis and black students' fears that universities remain unwelcoming places for them, more than two decades on from the fall of apartheid. Protests forced many campuses to suspend teaching last year.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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