Violent protests threaten classes at South African universities

Violent protests between police and protesters demanding free education erupted at one of South Africa’s largest universities, as several other campuses were forced to close again on Monday.

After the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg resumed its classes early Monday, students threw rocks and police used stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. While the university management agreed to allow students to march in cordoned-off zones, protests spilled over into adjacent areas and inner-city streets. The resumption of classes came after the college’s council met this weekend in a bid to find a way to end the demonstrations.

“Management has engaged several times with student leaders directly and through mediators throughout last week, to no avail,” the university said in a statement posted on its Twitter page. “The university has committed to the principle of working toward free education.”

The protests are threatening the completion of the current academic year, jeopardizing graduation for many and the enrollment of the next first-year class for 2017. Finances at many of South Africa’s 26 universities are stretched by government’s decision to limit tuition costs this year after student riots in 2015, with some saying they may not be able to continue operating. Africa’s most industrialized economy is already contending with a skills shortage and a 27 percent unemployment rate.

Tuition Increases

While the government has said the universities will be responsible for deciding on tuition increases of up to 8 percent, protesters are demanding they’re abolished altogether. While the state has promised to subsidize fees for poorer and middle-income families, it says wealthy households must pay for tuition.

The top-rated University of Cape Town suspended its classes at all its campuses until further notice.

“The decision allows further time for engagement with key stakeholders, including the Student Representative Council and particularly the SRC candidates who are leading the protest actions on campus at present,” the university’s spokesman, Elijah Moholola, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Private security has been withdrawn from the campus until further notice. Police have not been called onto the campus either.”

Police Clashes

Some other universities have closed due to the protests. Students have clashed with police around the country, pelting security officers with rocks while setting several buildings alight with petrol bombs. Police said last week that there had been at least 327 arrests since February in relation to acts of violence, intimidation and destruction of property related to the #FeesMustFall campaign.

The University of Pretoria closed its Hatfield campus and the University of the Free State has extended its academic year by a week due to demonstrations.

“It is absolutely necessary to find a means of protest and political action that will not jeopardize the future of current students and the country’s desperate need for critical skills,” Nicky Morgan, the acting rector of the University of the Free State, said in a letter posted on the institution’s website. “The police will intervene, if the interdict against violent protest secured by the UFS is not respected, and the UFS will have no control over police actions.”