In a statement issued on Tuesday, Wits University confirmed that it would be running a poll for students and staff, in order to “clearly understand the views of the wider Wits community”. The poll will be over SMS for students and staff can respond via a website link. It will run from 7am to 4pm on Thursday, 29 September 2016 and will have oversight from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The university confirmed that it does not have the details of around 260 out of 37, 000 students and asked students to double check their details on the university’s self-service.
A postgraduate student from Wits highlights ten (or so) questions about the Wits referendum.
1. The idea of a referendum, a simple vote, is not in the institutional culture of Wits or in any of the Wits University statutes. There is no legal basis for it and it actually undermines the governance structures of the university.
2. There is no precedent for a referendum. There is however, historic precedent for a student assembly, a general assembly and university forums. A place in which ideas can be exchanged and debated. In fact, there has never been any referendum for anything that is important to students or staff.
3. It is impossible to ensure anonymity through voting via SMS and online using your student/staff number.
4. The process is open to intimidation on both sides. Unlike a ballot box process, where one is alone and protected, this process will not be subject to those requirements.
5. It is difficult for the IEC to verify a free and fair process when it is online and through SMS. There is a reason we don’t have online voting in general. It is well documented that online voting is subject to numerous kinds of manipulation.
6. The university management is a player and referee. They have called for, and will be running a referendum and at the same time, they have taken a clear side.
7. The university has a greater ability to influence students and staff members in the university and media space. They have direct access to every student and staff member through a number of platforms (including email and SMS) and they have direct access to the media.
8. A referendum does not allow all parties to debate and discuss the crisis at Wits university. This is completely against the spirit of a university that is supposed to be a space for vibrant debate. Instead, the university wants to reduce students to voting cows. Even if there is a referendum, the university has not even made provision for a single debate on the matter yet everyone is expected to vote.
9. It is not inclusive and ignores the voice of workers who are an integral part of our campus. Outsourcing has dehumanised them consistently and has now taken away their right to have a stake in the university they work for every day.
10. There are too many technical questions that remain unanswered.
– Will participants need airtime?
– What about the students whose numbers are not on the database? Where will all of the votes be collected?
– What kind of oversight will the IEC have?
– What is the threshold for the referendum to be considered legitimate?
During Fees Must Fall protests last year, Wits University students demanded that the university Council come down and engage with the university community. When they eventually did this, Council and the SRC signed a historic agreement in the early hours of Saturday morning after hours of grueling back-and-forth. One of the points in that agreement was that a University Assembly would take place on the Monday that would be take into consideration the voices of all members of the Wits community with regards to the protest and the demands being made. The university did not honour this agreement in 2015 and they seem to still fear a deliberative and consultative process.
This year, the university management has not even bothered to pretend and has called a referendum that affirms that making historic decisions should not be any more meaningful than sending a yes or no SMS.