Student Protests Threaten to Close South African Universities

  • University of Witwatersrand suspends classes until Oct. 10
  • Students are demanding free education, end to fee increases

Violent clashes between South African police and students demanding free education are threatening to force some universities to close.

The Johannesburg-based University of the Witwatersrand, known as Wits, has suspended classes until Oct. 10 after police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators on Tuesday. Following the arrest of at least three students, school authorities agreed to withdraw police to the perimeter of its campuses, which have been largely shut down for more than a week.

“We have made this concession because we do not want the scenes that played out on our University campuses today to be repeated,” Wits spokeswoman Shirona Patel said in an e-mailed statement late Tuesday.

The violence at Wits as well as the University of Cape Town on Tuesday followed clashes last week at universities around the country. Many of the nation’s institutions of higher learning say financial strains on their budgets may threaten their ability to remain open. That would spell disaster for Africa’s biggest economy, which is already contending with a skills shortage and a 27 percent unemployment rate.

Restoring Calm

Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said on Monday that if calm isn’t restored, he would have to close the institution. A mobile-phone poll last week at Wits showed that 77 percent of the 21,730 students who responded want classes to resume.

At the same time, violence rocked the University of Cape Town on Tuesday, forcing authorities to block some entrances to the campus. Protesters pelted security personnel with rocks and several buildings were hit with petrol bombs. Police remain on campus and the management is hopeful of reopening on Wednesday.

“If we ended up not being able to continue lectures for the next two or three weeks, then we would probably have to close the campus and say that we can’t continue this year,” Vice Chancellor Max Price said in a video posted on the university’s Twitter page.

Authorities at Wits plan to hold a meeting on Friday with student leaders, school officials and Chancellor Dikgang Moseneke, a retired deputy chief justice of the Constitutional Court, to reach an agreement on resuming classes.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, speaking in an interview with Bloomberg TV in New York on Tuesday, said the government is “doing its best” to resolve the universities’ funding crunch.

“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.”