Jewish views on 2016 #FeesMustFall
Most universities have closed, amid disrupted lectures, intimidation of students and academics, and violent clashes with police and security guards.
The entire 2016 academic year could be lost, with enormous repercussions for students and the 2017 intake. Jewish Report canvassed the views of some Jewish students and academics.
Eitan Egdes, third year landscape architecture student and head of the South African Union of Jewish Student (SAUJS) at the University of Pretoria, said: “My main feeling is frustration. These protests have caused a massive mess. It is terrible to be kicked out of classes.”
“Frankly, most Jewish students want to just finish the year, write exams and get their degrees,” said Dani Hovsha, SAUJS national chairman and honours student in English and International Relations at Wits.
In a Wits SMS poll, 77 per cent of students replying wanted to return to classes.
Most interviewees reiterated Judaism’s high regard for education, and expressed some empathy for poor students.
“I support their struggle,” said Yael Kadish, a psychology senior lecturer at Wits. “But tertiary education comes with great sacrifices – borrowing money, crushing student loans… There’s simply no money for food, toiletries or textbooks…Some students have no accommodation, sleeping in libraries.”
In 2016, a first year BA course starts at R33 640 at Wits, with a B Com first year course costing R43 320.
Many squarely blamed government. “I support the protests, but they have been misdirected – they should be targeted at government,” said Jaden Cramer, SAUJS National Director and LLB student at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
“Universities alone cannot scrap fees. Only government can meet these demands,” said Michael Kransdorff, senior lecturer in accountancy at Wits.
The violence drew universal disapproval. David Bilchitz, UJ Professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law, said: “I strongly condemn the violence – perpetrated only by a few. We now live in a constitutional democracy where only methods that persuade – rather than coerce – are legitimate.
“The methods being used to promote goals, some of which clearly raise issues of great importance for social justice, are, however, counter-productive and are undermining those very goals. One cannot claim to value education by undermining it and burning the buildings within which it takes place.”
Kadish said: “The cause is very important. But the means used are terrifying, violent and reckless. These students feel they must do desperate things to be heard,” but he added that political opportunists have “hijacked this struggle”.
Police and private security have inflamed the situation at Wits. “It’s become ugly,” said Hovsha. “The police seem completely unprepared, and can’t handle protesting groups… Security guards threw rocks back at the protesters.”
“The university must protect staff, students and property. A cleaner already lost her life during these protests. But it’s a Catch-22 – they don’t want to militarise the campus, but need to ensure people feel safe,” Kransdorff said.
A counter-protest group called #KeepWitsOpen. has created tensions with the #FeesMustFall protesters, triggering damaging racial comments. Do Jewish students feel connected to this struggle?
Kadish said: “I think it’s difficult for Jewish students to really get involved and feel like they have legitimacy.” Many have backed off or laid low.
“It is precarious, especially when racial dimensions emerge,” Cramer said. “The media, third force or radical elements of the protest are drawing on the white students feeling marginalised and threatened, and black students feeling angry, and are trying to position it as the whites wanting their December holiday while the black students are fighting for survival, in an attempt to fuel the violence and stop proper dialogue.”
And the Shabbos table talk? “If we’re not safe at university, is there a future?” said Hovsha. “But Jews can’t live in a vacuum. We need to figure this one out. We can’t be silent, letting others suffer. It is part of the Jewish striving for social justice and tikkun olam,” she said.
“If this isn’t sorted out, the situation will go from bad to worse. If education quality and safety is not upheld, then we might see mass emigration like after 1976. The country will battle as it loses more graduates,” Kadish warned.
Egdes said: “This needs to end soon. If the academic year can’t finish, the country will be deprived of thousands of graduates. It will affect thousands of matrics. But at the moment I just see more havoc. Then young Jews will look for other options, and a strong one is a country that wants us: Israel.”
Bilchitz said: “We still have excellent universities and strong academics. We should put this into perspective. Israeli universities, for example, sometimes face strikes for months. The 2015 academic year was completed. We can still save 2016. ”
Time will tell.