Does the UFS management really negotiate with students?

On the afternoon of Tuesday 20th October word had spread around that there would be a student mass meeting at the Thakaneng Bridge to address the on-going Fees Must Fall movement around the country. On presenting their demand to the university management later on, the students were invited to negotiations by management. From observation one can predict that management had hoped for the usual ‘let’s talk issues into non-existence’ procedure that had become the order of the day at UFS. Or maybe they called the student leadership just to tell them that whatever they’re asking for is impossible to implement, as it seems it was the case here. This ‘negotiations’/‘debates’/‘proposals’ trick is the same one that drove the ‘statues must fall’ movement and many other issues into God-knows-where.

An example of a household suits this predicament the best. Parents don’t get 8.3% salary increases to finance their daughters and sons education, if this was a balanced negotiation maybe the discussion should have started right there. Yes the university needs to keep the lights on (well, take about 50 first years around the world, rebuild the main gate gantry, extravaganza and anti-xenophobia concerts, yeah all that and more) but how does the varsity finance all this, and can the actual household(the students’ families) be taken into consideration here. How do parents pay 8.3% more when parent’s salaries stay the same?

Let’s examine this negotiation practice. Clearly the two sides, students and management, don’t simply sit and talk through and resolve the differences that produced the conflict between them.

  1. In most negotiations it is not the relative fairness of the conflicting views and objectives that determines the content of a negotiated item and agreement.
  2. The content of a negotiated agreement is largely determined by the power capacity of each side. The outcome is somewhat predetermined by the assessment of absolute and relative power situations of the two parties. The students’ representation is already shaky as illustrated in the previous article and therefore we cannot assume any type of real power for the students in this process. This is why students were pushed towards the ‘demands-not-suggestions’ hard line this time around.
  3. The other factor is the tenacity in character of the students towards the issue at hand; which is one of the greatest challenges facing students.This issue is determined by the organization of students as a body and the structural platforms that permit opinions to be voiced and ideas to be practiced and tested, an aspect that has been intentionally sabotaged at UFS.

However negotiations can be appropriate to reach solutions sometimes and therefore we(as students) cannot totally disregard them as an option. At the end students as stakeholders can be dynamic. What cannot be negotiated is a right, be it to education, dignity and all other rights that are violated by the racist oppressive system of our university. Issues like outsourcing of cleaning staff, the language policy, apartheid monuments and exclusionary minority cultures on campus, these we can’t negotiate.

The UFS management has used the negotiation process to undermine the genuine student’s grievances, this has led to some worrying the students will forever be in the toyi-toyi tune and bring everything to a standstill whenever they want to communicate with management. However we need to take into regard that students can still negotiate with management or government on issues that aren’t fundamentally trumping on their human freedoms. On relatively small issues(like high prices at the student center) students can still sit around the table and give up something to achieve something from the management side.

In one of his newspaper articles Prof. Jansen wrote:

Looking beyond the immediate crisis, my deeper concern, though, is that these cycles of protest are becoming endemic to the sector and that once the fees problem is behind us there will be other moving targets for student agitation, keeping our universities in a perpetual state of unrest and ungovernability.

There’s a tinge of that ‘thuggery’ talk on this sentiment/prediction. The assumption is that when students go into strike action once, they will never come back, because they are thugs. This unreasonably doubts the students’ discipline. Or maybe he can refer to the constant protests in ‘historically black’ universities as a trend, but even if that could be a genuine worry from someone who ‘cares’ about SA universities, question would still be if this are real issues student’s are complaining about, why can’t they strike? How about we resolve this issues and stop blaming students for protest action. Treating protests as the problem here is just shifting the focus from the real issues.

On violence

One of the issues that students of the University of Free State managed to address effectively is the issue of non-violent protests. Students have displayed brilliance in resisting to be dictated how to protest and bow down to the oppressive tactics of the same management they were demonstrating against. If we are serious about our demands, we are not going to be told how to express our feelings about them. We all know where the black anger comes from, well unless you believe the black students woke up one morning and decided that spending a few hours in a holding cell would be a great idea, just for control.

Students have chosen their own way of protesting and that entails the idea of non-violence that has been neatly demonstrated in the four days of protesting. In the heat of the moment when everyone is singing and chanting some might take advantage of the confusion and push their own violent agendas. However a clash in ideology within the students themselves is all that was required to define the #UFSFeesMustFall movement as a violent movement or a non-violent one.

Even though many won’t say these, it was the student’s at the protest that spared their drinking water to extinguished a burning tire at the main gate. They did not wait for any high authority to tell them what was wrong or right, they knew what they wanted to do and how. The idea of violent protest was directly at clash with that of non-violence and the latter prevailed.

Photo credit: @KovsieFM97