South Africa University Risks Closing as No End Seen to Protest

  • Students not willing to commit to going back to lectures
  • Police say protest has been infiltrated to provoke violence

South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand risks closing its doors for the rest of the year after a mass meeting to discuss the crisis at the country’s biggest university was postponed when protesting students and management failed to agree on a way forward.

The institution had planned to hold a general assembly on Friday, led by Chancellor Dikgang Moseneke, a retired deputy chief justice of the Constitutional Court, to reach an agreement to end violent protests for free education. Demonstrations have forced the closing of several universities across the country for weeks as the academic year nears an end, and caused hundreds of millions of rands in damage to property.

“Protesting students effectively wanted the general assembly and march to the constitutional court to continue, but refused to commit that the academic program will commence on Monday,” Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib told reporters on Friday. “One of the latest demands is that Wits and all other universities should be shut down until government agrees to free education.”

Shutting universities for the rest of year will result in students not graduating and will leave the next intake of school leavers in limbo for 2017. While the government has offered subsidies for poorer students, it opposes free education for wealthier families. Finances at many of the 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 be disastrous for an economy already contending with a skills shortage and a 27 percent unemployment rate.

Petrol Bombs

Wits University will hold a council meeting over the weekend to try to find consensus, Habib said.

Students have clashed with police at universities around the country. Protesters pelted security officers with rocks and several buildings were set alight with petrol bombs at the University of Cape Town this week. Police have arrested 327 people since February in relation to acts of violence, intimidation and destruction of property related to the campaign for lower fees, Khomotso Phahlane, the acting national police commissioner, told reporters on Thursday.

“The arrests are related to 134 cases that have been opened with the police and 32 of those cases are already before courts of law,” he said. “The fees must fall movement has been infiltrated by those who want to provoke the police to use violence.”

Junk Rating

The campaign also puts pressure on the National Treasury as a time when the government is seeking to limit spending to bring down the budget deficit to less than 3 percent of gross domestic product and stave off a credit rating downgrade to junk.

The developments at Wits and the University of Cape Town show that there’s a high level of spontaneity among the student groups, making them difficult to negotiate with, Ben Turok, a former anti-apartheid activist and economics professor, said by phone on Friday.

“It is virtually a leaderless movement and this, with the spontaneity, makes for a highly dangerous situation,” he said.

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