Release Date: 03 October, 2016


Dear Colleagues

I write to you to apologise for the disruptions that unfolded on our Braamfontein campus today. You trusted our judgment and reported for duty, and we let you down. I understand that many staff members are disappointed and angry – you were intimidated, threatened and forced to leave your offices when all you did was to come to work, in the hope of preparing to educate future generations.

Following a meeting of about 500 students on campus today, the protesting students broke into splinter groups and forced some staff to leave offices and laboratories. Wits’ security was able to contain the large group, but not the smaller groups that moved through buildings. 

We made the decision to open today taking into account several factors, including the importance of universities and the immense consequences of not finishing the academic year. In addition, the Wits poll indicated that 77% of students who responded, wanted to return to class. Our job is to protect the rights of everyone, including the students and staff who want to learn and work. The protesters acknowledge that access to quality higher education for the poor and what is referred to as the missing middle is a national problem that cannot be resolved by any single institution. 

Our initial approach was to obtain a negotiated settlement with students and over the weekend we met with a range of student leaders, political parties and individuals. Following discussions, we committed to working with students in the fight for free education for the poor and missing middle, through holding a General Assembly, engaging in public demonstrations, building on Wits’ submission to the Heher Commission and taking the issue to relevant stakeholders at the national level. We agreed to deploy a team of academics and others to develop proposals to realise this goal. Further, we agreed to a phased opening of the University after discussions with some student leaders. 

Over the weekend, students and staff expressed great concern about learning in a ‘securitised’ environment with police guarding lecture halls. It is for this reason that we scaled down our security for today and requested the police to move to the campus perimeter. However, given the harassment of some staff today, I am left with no choice but to open tomorrow with a full security contingent throughout our campuses. We will have security and police services deployed on all campuses and in all buildings. No mass meetings will be allowed in Solomon Mahlangu House. Anyone caught contravening any University rule or court interdict, or infringing on the rights of others, will immediately be held accountable for their actions, and may face criminal charges. I have personally received reassurances from the police, from private security and Campus Control that they are on board to secure the campus and protect the lives of students and staff who want to learn and work.

But I cannot do this alone. I need every staff member and every student to help me take back our campus as the academic programme opens tomorrow. It is not ideal to attend classes with police at the doors of learning, but I am left with no choice.

If we do not get this right tomorrow, we have no choice but to close the University, which will compromise the 2016 academic programme and the lives of all 37 000 students. It means that all students will have to move out of residences before the end of the week. It means that there will be fewer teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants in the workplace. It means that students on financial aid, scholarships and bursaries may lose their funding. It means that Wits will not be able to enrol first years in January – we have 75 000 applications for 2017 already. 

The consequences of a shutdown are far-reaching and such a decision should be one of last resort. I therefore plead with you to work with me once more to try to save the 2016 academic year, and the future of this great University.

Thank you

Adam Habib
Vice-Chancellor and Principal
University of the Witwatersrand
3 October 2016 

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