Beleaguered NMMU was forced to make a dramatic U-turn last night and suspended plans to reopen the campus on Monday after angry protest action erupted yesterday.
Tyres were burnt and there was a standoff between police and students when the protesters threatened to throw stones.
The demonstrators vowed to keep the institution shut by blocking the south campus entrance in a pre-dawn protest on Monday.
But NMMU spokeswoman Zandile Mbabela said the “volatile situation” had led to a decision to keep the university closed.
“We are reluctant to immediately go ahead with the resumption of classes, given our concerns for the safety of staff and students,” she said.
“The university will remain closed on Monday.”
She said the university would continue to follow all legitimate avenues to resolve the situation.
“We sincerely apologise for this. Further communication regarding the way forward will follow,” she said.
More than 200 students took to the streets in protest against the university reopening.
On Thursday night, NMMU announced it would be open to staff yesterday and would resume with lectures on Monday after almost a month of being closed.
The university was shut down after protests by students who are part of the #FeesMustFall movement, following Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on 2017 fee increases.
An attempt yesterday by NMMU deputy vice-chancellor Dr Sibongile Muthwa to address the students failed, with students saying they did not recognise the university management and had declared themselves as “university management” a long time ago.
Yesterday’s protest action began at 8am when NMMU staff members were blocked from entering the campus by a group of about 40 students who are part of the # FeesMustFall movement.
During the protest when police moved in, lecturers intervened and placed themselves in front of the students as a human shield.
NMMU lecturers who call themselves “Imbumba yabasebenzi base NMMU” (A collective of NMMU workers) pledged solidarity with the students.
The group of demonstrators grew at about 11am when almost 200 students joined the protest action at the Gordham Road intersection on University Way.
The Reverend Ken Carr of the Methodist Church of South Africa and Bishop Lunga ka Siboto of the Ethiopian Church, were also present.
The group of church leaders, including Reverend Neville Goldman of the Ebenezer International Church and religious leader Afrika Mhlophe, were called in as mediators after a mass meeting last Saturday where rifts between students emerged.
The students of the # FeesMustFall movement said that the university management had undermined their cause and was not taking them seriously.
“Management has issued communication without consulting us, saying operations would resume. “NMMU, until further notice, is closed – until they meet our demands. These people don’t take us seriously and they don’t respect us. We are not here to negotiate, negotiations are over,” a student said.
NMMU #FeesMustFall spokeswoman Nontobeko Zungu said the university would stay closed until their internal demands were met.
“We have been calling for free and decolonised education,” she said.
“We have met with NMMU management but in those meetings they have shown no interest in making movements to meet our demands,” Zungu said.
NMMU student representative council president Nicholas Nyati said it was disappointing that the university was not opening on Monday. “Another closure will have a negative effect on students’ academics.”
“We are also especially concerned about the matter of international students with visas that are expiring next month,” he said.
Port Elizabeth advocate Terry Price, who is leading a large group of parents who are in the process of taking legal action to have NMMU reopened, said attorney Brin Brody of the Grahamstown firm of Wheeldon Rushmere and Cole Inc was heading the case while he (Price) had to focus on the upcoming Christopher Panayiotou murder trial.
Brody confirmed that the university had been served with the urgent application yesterday after it received a letter of demand on Thursday.
“We are still proceeding with the application. When we served the letter of demand the university provided a lengthy response to say it would reopen but it could not give any guarantees that it would remain open. We are saying that simply opening is not good enough. It needs to reopen and ensure that it stays open,” he said.
Brody said the urgent application, which will be heard in the Grahamstown High Court on Tuesday at 10am, had four parts.
“One is that it opens for normal operations and remains open. Two is that they hire additional security and call in the SAPS if need be. Three is that they approach the high court to obtain an interdict against all students who misbehave.”
“Lastly, they need to discipline all misbehaving students strictly, in terms of their own disciplinary code.”
“The university’s code stipulates that students who prevent others from studying should be expelled,” Brody said.