The ASAWU Executive is grateful to all those who came to the Wits Peace Accord event held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Wednesday 19 October.
The aim of the event was to start talking about peaceful routes through the current crisis, in service of the larger social justice project of accessible, public, properly funded higher education. The aim was not to present a pre-fabricated peace accord, but to try to open a space where peaceful processes could be considered. Some may argue that there cannot be peace without justice, but we believe that to achieve justice we must be willing to work together peacefully and in good faith. The ideas of peace and justice are not mutually exclusive.
We express our sincere thanks to ASAWU member Prof Vishwas Satgar who convened and organised the event with the knowledge and support of the Executive Committee, and to Jay Naidoo, Adv Thuli Madonsela, Fr Graham Pugin, and Bishop Malusi for attending and speaking on the need for peace and collaboration as a necessary route forward. We thank the Holy Trinity Catholic Church for providing a neutral and safe space in which to host the event. The venue was chosen precisely because it was neutral and safe and it has the same seating capacity as the Wits Great Hall. An “overflow” venue with a linked sound system was arranged in the hall next door so that when the church filled up, additional seating would be available. We recognize and appreciate the collective desire of those who attended to explore ways to end the cycle of violence taking place at Wits and through that to contribute to the resolution of the broader national crisis of university funding and student fees. We are also grateful for the many endorsements of the process that we received.
Organisers of the event, including members of the ASAWU Executive, reached out to student leaders in advance and communicated that their participation would be welcome. The SRC was aware of the programme in advance, endorsed the event and re-tweeted the invitation.
The invitation was, as it needed to be, publicly extended to all members of the Wits community. We are therefore disappointed that the event, meant to explore and model a way forward to resolving the conflict, was disrupted by some protesting students. We wish to emphasise that we do not see the actions of this group as representative of all students who attended the event. Speakers were interrupted, and the Vice-Chancellor, who was present as a member of the audience, was shouted at and forced to leave the church. Student leaders present insisted that the meeting should not take place in the church and should be moved. It was decided that the ASAWU meeting at the church would end, and students then constituted their own meeting at Solomon Mahlangu house, where the invited speakers joined them. We do not agree with the tactics of intimidation, bullying and threatening behaviour which were used in order to change the location and purpose of the event to serve some narrow political agendas.
While we understand the pain and anger that some students are feeling we do not agree with the way in which it was expressed in a space that was meant to serve as a sanctuary. We are saddened that the sanctity of Holy Trinity Church as a safe and peaceful space was not respected. We note the statement by the Society of Jesus in South Africa and understand their decision that the church can no longer be available for meetings. We thank them for their extensive efforts to assist in the current crisis and for the loving support that they have shown in the past weeks to all staff and students, regardless of their political beliefs or positions. We offer our sympathy to the Vice-Chancellor for the way in which he was treated by some protesting students.
ASAWU remains committed to encouraging peaceful means to resolve an important question of social justice as well as the impasse we see in our own university community right now. We are deeply disturbed by ALL of the violence that we are seeing on our campus, from police responses to protesting students to the burning of books in the library and militant disruptions of classes and tests. We believe that the time for a truce is now. All sides can be apportioned some responsibility for the current situation. We have to move beyond finger-pointing and blaming. We want to see our campus free from rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, rocks, broken windows, destroyed exam papers and burned books. We are terribly worried about injured and traumatised students. We are concerned about staff morale. We urgently plead with all parties to end the violence and enter into mediation immediately. We need to chart a way forward and stay respectful and caring to one another despite everything that has happened. We are facing a national political problem and we need to come together to build collaborative efforts directed to holding the state accountable.
ASAWU maintains its role as the union representing the majority of academic staff on campus and will continue to ensure academic staff views are heard at this moment and in the future. As a union we maintain an obligation to ensure our members work in an environment that is free from violence, respects diversity and protects workers’ rights. As a union we are deeply committed to peace and justice. We will continue as ardent advocates for these ideals.