Summit fails to stop student rally

August 9, 1996

South African students have refused to call off a day of action this week despite a broad consensus reached at a two-day summit on the future of South African higher education and its transformation after the end of apartheid.

Sibusiso Bengu, education minister, was delighted to reach the agreement he sought with the 0 delegates from university, technikon and college academic and staff organisations, trade unions, students and vice principals.

But it followed much debate, during which students voiced deep concern about the transformation process. While most academics maintained a stout silence, officials from the education department sought to reach agreement with as many delegates as possible on a national framework for transformation of higher education.

A variety of staff, student, worker, business and government constituencies was represented by stakeholders at the conference.

David Makhura, president of the South African Students' Congress and member of the Democratic Students' Alliance - a loose coalition formed between the South African Students' Congress, the South African Workers' Union, the South African Technikon Students' Union and the Young Christian Students Union, expressed disappointment that government had not acknowledged their role in higher education more firmly.

"There are many questions left unanswered by this conference," he said. "This is why Sasco will be going ahead with the day of action to reiterate our demands for a stronger commitment from government on the issue of the role of the state in bringing about meaningful change at tertiary institutions."

When the conference in Pretoria began, officials from the education department distributed a draft proposal for change, with a tacit instruction that some agreement should be reached by the end.

After students challenged a preparatory document, a new version was unveiled, spelling out the aims of the summit: to remove the legacies of apartheid education and raise "burning issues" that needed urgent attention.

These included financial aid for students and the need for a moratorium on exclusions on financial grounds; a ban on language policies used to exclude particular groups; provision of funds for academic development and the support of disadvantaged students; law enforcement and conflict resolution mechanisms on campus; staff involvement in decision making at all levels; gender and racial staff imbalances; and privatisation.

Gessler Mkondo, of the University of Venda, suggested that there should be a follow-up meeting.

"We should not leave here with a sense of failure," he said. "This conference has agreed to look at the issues as the way forward."

Brenda Gourley, vice chancellor of the University of Natal, representing the Committee of University Principals, said: "We should not be downcast. To get 0 people to agree to anything is ambitious."

However, student leader Prishani Naidoo was one of the few who disagreed with the framework document.

"The summit would be a waste of time if we only looked at the proposals. We did not need an expensive summit to draw up a list which could have been done by consultation," she said.

After the majority of stakeholders had agreed to uphold the proposed framework, Professor Bengu told delegates he wanted to stand out firmly as an African.

"According to our tradition when people agree, it is valid, and you do not have to put it on paper. As Africans in this country we want to respect those things on which we agreed and work on those things on which we did not."

He told the summit the government held the responsibility to intervene decisively to create an environment conducive to a negotiated transformation process in higher education.

"I believe that despite our differences, there is sufficient support among all stakeholders for the transformation of the higher education sector."

Afterwards, he told reporters he did not intend to force a signing or agreement of a framework document, but wanted to find consensus on which were problem areas and needed government intervention. A third summit will be held in October.

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