Rhodes is the last to enforce vaccine mandate after others abandon controversial policy
In January this year more than half a dozen universities in South Africa were on a course to require staff, students and visitors to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or to show negative tests for the virus to access their campuses.
A little over six months on, just one university appears to retain the controversial policy after the University of the Free State lifted its mandate with immediate effect on 15 July.
The only university Research Professional News could verify as still enforcing a vaccine mandate is Rhodes University in Makhanda
The others have either repealed vaccine requirements in the last few months, or chosen to abandon the policy before implementation.
The development comes after the push for university vaccine mandates was criticised both by student groups and public officials. In March, the director-general of the Department of Higher Education described how “unilateral decisions” had been taken without “due regard” for stakeholders.
No university expressly blamed court challenges for its decision. Nevertheless, organisations including the Universities Alliance South Africa, formed last year to fight vaccine mandates, have claimed credit for the changes in direction.
Most universities cited a change in the threat posed by Covid-19 as the reason for rolling back their mandates.
The University of Johannesburg said its decision, announced on 24 June, “was predominantly informed” by low infection rates and high vaccination rates.
The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg announced on 6 July that it was “temporarily” suspending its vaccine mandate based on “the latest scientific evidence, and the changes to national legislation and regulations”.
The University of the Western Cape dropped the policy on 23 June for all faculties except those that had approved a “hard mandate”: the schools of dentistry, health and pharmacy, which need to apply to have those mandates revoked.
Stellenbosch University put its vaccine mandate plans on hold in April, a decision based on “prevailing circumstances” like the emergence of the Omicron variant and the university’s own risk assessment.
Even the University of Cape Town, which in October 2021 became one of the first universities in the country to adopt a vaccine mandate in principle, abandoned its policy days before it was about to come into force on 1 April. The “context had shifted”, a statement from the university said.
This week, Rhodes University confirmed its vaccine mandate remained in place. At a 15 June meeting of the university council resolved that the vaccine mandate was “in the best interest of the university and its community", a university spokesperson said.
Rhodes says it will review the mandate when the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic merits it, and when the university community requires it.