Violent clashes in South Africa over student fees

South Africa's government says universities in the country can increase fees by no more than 8 percent next year, despite student warnings that they would protest against any new hikes.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Students take part in a protest at University of the Witwatersrand as countrywide protests demanding free tertiary education entered a third week, Johannesburg, South Africa, September 20, 2016.

Updated Sep 21, 2016

South African police fired stun grenades and arrested 31 students in clashes at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) on Tuesday, as countrywide protests demanding free tertiary education entered a third week.

The protests erupted following an announcement by Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande to increase 2017 tuition fees by no more than 8 percent at institutions of higher learning which is more than the current inflation rate of 6 percent.

Unrest hit many South African universities this year and in 2015, as students protest the fee increases saying it forces poorer, often black, pupils out of education. 

Students from the University of Cape Town chant and sing as they gather to discuss possible student fee increases at there campus in Cape Town, South Africa, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. Image: AP

Students and campus security battled outside the Great Hall auditorium at Wits University in Johannesburg, the most prestigious university in the country, leaving many of the building's windows broken and the ground littered with rocks before police moved in to break up the fighting.

"The students wanted to gather, and we were denied entry (to the Great Hall), that is when things turned violent," student Sizwe Mangena, 20, told AFP.

"Things started to fly, everyone running for cover. It was like a scene from the townships during apartheid.

"Our demand is simply that we want free education. Our parents can't afford to pay."

Nompendulo Mkatshwa, outgoing president of the student representative council, said police had fired stun grenades at students gathered near the university.

"Students are not happy with what the Department of Higher Education and Training said, so they are fighting for equal education," Mkatshwa said.

Police spokesman Lungelo Dlamini said the arrested students "were blocking the entrance of the university in contravention of the court order" and were being held at a nearby station and were later released on a warning. 

"About 200 students in roving groups are moving from campus-to-campus disrupting classes... and intimidating students," Wits, one of the country's most prestigious universities, said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

"We are deploying security and the police. Students will be arrested if they do not comply with police orders."

Protests were also held at campuses in Cape Town, Pretoria and Bloemfontein.

Weeks of violent demonstrations last year over university costs, forced President Jacob Zuma to rule out fee raises for 2016 but university authorities have warned that another freeze for this year could damage their academic programmes.

On Monday, Nzimande gave universities the go-ahead to announce their own increase in tuition fees, but that the increments would be capped at eight percent.

The government said it would cover the increase for students from families earning less than R600,000 ($43,000) a year, but student activists have demanded free education for all.

Students from the University of the Witwatersrand clash with university security guards during a demonstration against university fee hikes, on September 20, 2016, in Johannesburg. Image: AFP

TV footage showed stun grenades being fired to clear a major road in Johannesburg, while local media said that 31 people who had been arrested for blocking a campus entrance, were released with a warning.

Throughout this year, there has been sporadic unrest which has seen accommodation buildings and libraries set alight, and in May, an auditorium at Johannesburg University was firebombed.

The issue of education fees has ignited widespread frustration over a lack of opportunities for young people, worsened by a weakening economy and high unemployment.

In a statement issued late on Tuesday, Wits University suspended all activities at its campuses for the rest of the week. In addition, the University of Free State closed its Bloemfontein campus, while classes and lectures were also abandoned at the University of Cape Town.

TRTWorld and agencies