Police Clash With Students at South African Universities

  • If the violence doesn’t stop, Wits says it may have to close
  • Students are demanding free education, end to fee increases

Some of South Africa’s leading universities started to reopen under a heavy police presence while at others, students renewed protests to demand free education, leading to violent clashes.

Police fired rubber bullets at protesting students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, which has been closed for at least a week. The renewed unrest follows a mobile-phone poll last week at the institution, known as Wits, in which 77 percent of the 21,730 students who responded voted for the academic program to resume.

“Today, classes started off quite peacefully with the security reinforcements we had in place, but around 10 a.m., we had a group of students demonstrating and there were clashes with the police,” Wits spokeswoman Shirona Patel said by phone Tuesday. “This is a watershed moment for the university because if classes can’t commence peacefully some time soon, we will be forced to shut the university for the 2016 academic year -- some time soon as in during the course of this week.”

Finances at many of South Africa’s 26 universities are so stretched by the government’s decision to limit tuition costs this year after student riots in 2015 that they say they may not be able to continue operating. That would spell disaster for an economy already contending with a skills shortage and a 27 percent unemployment rate.

Funding Crunch

The government is “doing its best” to resolve the universities’ funding crunch, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told Bloomberg TV in New York on Tuesday.

“What we have done last year and will do for the next year is free tertiary education for those students who come from poor backgrounds,” Gordhan later told Bloomberg Radio with Robert Moon. “We don’t see any point in middle-class and upper-class students being subsidized by the state if in fact their families can afford to pay these fees.”

While Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib reopened the university’s Braamfontein campus on Monday, he warned that if calm isn’t restored, he would have no choice but to close the university.

“The consequences of a shutdown are far-reaching and such a decision should be one of last resort,” Habib said in a letter to staff and students on the university’s Twitter page on Monday. “It means that there will be fewer teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants in the workplace. It means that students on financial aid, scholarships and bursaries may lose their funding.”

Cape Town Unrest

The University of Cape Town, which suspended classes, lectures and tutorials last week, opened Monday with at least one student being arrested, according to Johannesburg-broadcaster eNCA. Some entrances to the campus have been blocked, the university said in a statement on Tuesday.

“I wish no student to be ignorant about what constitutes unlawful protest behavior,” Vice Chancellor Max Price said in a statement. “Disruption of classes, blocking of entrances or exits, interfering with traffic flow, putting up barricades that prevent people from conducting normal business or attending classes, and any form of intimidation -- whether physical or verbal -- is unlawful.”

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