SOUTH AFRICA: Student protests turn violent

Violent student protests disrupted campuses in South Africa last week with hundreds of students at the Durban University of Technology clashing with police during a march against escalating tuition costs and exclusions of poor students who cannot pay fees. Institutions around the country are negotiating with students to try to resolve these and other problems that disrupt learning at the start of each academic year. But other universities have also experienced protests and students are anticipating more turmoil this month.

Financial difficulties lie at the heart of this perennial issue. Most students are from poor families, and although many receive government bursaries and loans, these do not cover the full costs and are only awarded after registration. Students must pay registration charges and outstanding fees, which they often cannot afford do, resulting in universities excluding thousands of indebted students from higher education every year.

Late last year, protests over fees occurred at the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg, and in recent weeks there have been demonstrations at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), University of Limpopo in the northern reaches of South Africa, and Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

Aside from fee increases, registration costs and exclusions, students are upset about issues ranging from food and accommodation, lack of transport, accreditation of courses and rights to protest and organise. They are also upset by the quality of student services, problems following mergers and, at DUT, poor security on campus where many students have fallen victim to crime in recent years.

“These protests are triggered by the ongoing crisis in higher education in South Africa,” David Maimela, president of the South African Students Congress (Sasco), told University World News. “Access to education still remains a pipe-dream to the majority of Africans, the poor and the working class, due to the commercial nature of education.”

Maimela said that while education was a right according to South Africa’s Constitution, in fact higher education was neither accessible nor free. As a result, before and after democracy in 1994, “the single most important demand from students remained access to education accompanied by success and quality”.

He said about 40% of students had debts from previous years. The ANC government should “prioritise education and sort out the crisis”. Through Sasco’s Right to Learn Campaign, students were engaged around the country in negotiations with universities aimed at removing obstacles to access.

Sasco also blames “bad managers” for creating problems. In a statement, the congress referred to the “sheer poor planning and mismanagement of university funds” at some institutions – which they denied – and of managers who failed to consult students or communicate inadequately.

“Some universities deploy money to luxurious unwanted activities such as excessive travelling abroad and fat salaries for principals while the quality of student services deteriorates at an alarming rate,” the statement said.

DUT was closed all last week after students at its Steve Biko campus began the week fighting with police and security guards for three hours, hurling bricks, stones and bottles, smashing windows and damaging property. Security personnel reportedly sprayed rubber bullets and stun grenades to ward off students and one policeman received minor injuries. Both sides claimed they were attacked first.

Last week’s chaos followed protests the week before that affected three of seven campuses – and occurred despite a court interdict obtained by the DUT against the Student Representatives Council organising protests. All DUT campuses were closed to protect lives and property so that 20,000 students could not attend lectures.

“The situation got very volatile and violent,” said Nomondi Mbadi, DUT’s executive director of public affairs and communications. She added that the university was trying to find solutions and was considering legal action against disruptive students.

The SRC is demanding that all student debt – currently totalling R175 million (US$25 million), including R72 million in outstanding fees from 2007 – is rolled over, enabling all students to continue with their studies.

“This situation is unsustainable and the university cannot continue to roll over student debt as they do not honour the acknowledgement of debt forms that they sign,” said Mbadi.

Sasco said that it expected tense negotiations at Tshwane University of Technology and at the University of Venda over registration fees and other problems, and further protests at other universities during February.