By Luke Reid
A furore erupted when Rhodes scheduled exams for Youth Day, June 16. After a month of negotiations and failed agreements, all exams have been moved off Youth Day to other dates.
June 16, or Youth Day, commemorates the 1976 Soweto student uprising, which many regard as a turning point in South Africa’s history. Exams were originally scheduled on this day after the company hired to formulate the timetable made a mistake. However after consulting the students concerned, the university decided to keep this timetable and a first draft of it was published, with 12 exams on June 16.
However, members of the Rhodes branch of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) complained about the timetable and a meeting was held between Rhodes University administration and the Sasco leadership. A compromise was proposed in which students would write on June 16 and the university would issue an apology for the oversight and promise that it would never happen again. However, Sasco members objected to this agreement, and after a second discussion, university management agreed that exams would not be written on Youth Day after all.
When the “final” timetable was published on May 12, Sasco members were surprised to discover that three exams were still scheduled for Youth Day. In addition, students writing seven other exams expressed anger at having had their exams moved after they were told they could write on June 16 if they wanted to.
On May 17, Dr Fourie attended a Sasco general meeting at where he attempted to persuade the organisation’s members to allow the university to hold exams on June 16. He urged the organisation to consider the frustration of students who want to write on June 16 because of the pressure they will face under an alternative arrangement. “Having published that one more day, now trying to take it back is very, very difficult. I want to plead with you, beg you, to be responsible. Allow your colleagues, all of whom have begged with us to put it back to June 16, to allow that.”
In discussing the issue, Fourie made it clear that he was prepared to go to great lengths to appease Sasco if a compromise could be reached: “How can I help you? You have celebrations for the June 16. How can I support you? I will give you every support I can. Do you want me to sponsor your June 16 celebrations? I’m not trying to bribe you; I want to say ‘let’s find a compromise to this situation’. In theory I ought to say it’s not possible because you’re not allowed to have any events on campus during exam times. I’m not saying that to you.”
As with the original agreement, Sasco leadership urged compromise. However when opened up to the floor, ordinary members were adamant in their condemnation. “Without June 16, there is no 1994,” said one. “You want to throw us a party, sir,” said another member to Fourie, “but the ultimate celebration we can have for June 16 is to not hold exams on that day.” There was also reference to external pressure. “It’s a very delicate situation,” declared one member. “Somebody outside is going to question us and ask why we let the university do this.”
After Sasco had made its position clear, Fourie informed it that the matter would be decided at a meeting of the Insitutional Forum, which, according to Fourie, is “designed to break deadlocks”. However after the meeting on Saturday, May 19, it was reported that no decision had been reached.
Sasco has made it clear that they will maintain pressure. Branch Chairperson Awethu Zumana said the university would face repercussions if it did not comply with Sasco’s demands. “We have direct channels to people who are up there,” he said, “So if we get defeated, we have a phone call that is going to go direct to the Minister of Education. It is not a threat; it is a channel that we have access to. Do not worry. Whatever happens, we are going to take it forward.”
Eventually, all exams were moved off Youth Day.