SOUTH AFRICA: Universities hit by protests, strikes

Three universities in South Africa were hit by protests and strikes last week. Some turned violent, leading to arrests, injuries and damage to property. Education Minister Naledi Pandor "is seriously concerned about the disruptions and has asked universities to try to resolve the difficulties at the start of every year," her spokesman told University World News.

The institutions affected were Durban University of Technology, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Tshwane University of Technology.

Pandor's spokesman, Lunga Ngqengelele, said trouble was not expected at other universities. However, he added: "We are monitoring the situation. Where necessary we will intervene to make sure all stakeholders are talking to each other and trying to find amicable solutions to their differences."

Universities open for the academic year in January or February, often to the prospect of students protesting about academic exclusions, registration fees, financial difficulties or other problems such as lack of accommodation. This year, students have been joined by staff, unhappy over pay, at two of the three affected institutions.

At Durban University of Technology (DUT), students and staff protested last week over "inadequate" salaries and accommodation. Staff downed tools on Monday, demanding a pay rise of 11.5%. (A settlement of 10.5% was reportedly reached on Thursday.)

At the same time, student leaders organised demonstrations over a range of issues including a shortage of residence accommodation, lack of and hazardous transport, and more time for students who have defaulted on fee debt to make alternative financial arrangements.

On Tuesday at least two people were injured when students clashed with guards at the DUT's Steve Biko campus in central Durban, broke windows in buildings and cars and wreaked other damage, forcing the university to close. Two students were arrested and charged with public violence.

DUT Students' Representative Council president Mandla Shange told The Witness that chaos erupted outside management offices while students were trying to arrange a meeting. He described the confrontation as "very unbecoming". On Wednesday, security guards escorted striking staff off the ML Sultan campus at gunpoint.

Students were due to meet with management on Friday. University spokesman Nomonde Mbadi told reporters that whatever the outcome of that consultation, DUT had obtained a court interdict preventing students from demonstrating within 100 metres of the institution and from intimidating people. The institution is expected to reopen tomorrow - but Shange warned that demonstrations would continue if student demands were not addressed.

Trouble also erupted at the Westville campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal last week, where students protested over dilapidated residences and lack of transport. Police arrested six students and charged five of them with malicious damage to property.

Staff at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria launched a pay strike last month. Though both sides have agreed to a 10% general wage increase, unions are unhappy that some staff will receive less.

The week before last, the strike turned nasty when police fired rubber bullets at protesters, reportedly injuring eight people. Chaos erupted when staff tried to prevent registration at the Pretoria campus, despite a court interdict prohibiting them from disrupting activities at the university or intimidating people not participating in the strike.

On 28 January TUT students and staff protested outside the Department of Education offices in Pretoria, handed over lists of grievances and called on Minister Pandor to intervene in their disputes with management. The demonstrators also demanded that the university be placed under a curator and that an investigation of finances and personnel be undertaken.

The strike has delayed the start of the academic year and disrupted the registration process at five campuses. Last week students reported that many of them were stopped from entering the university to write examinations, and that some were unable to register.

The institution said in a statement that it would, "as far as possible, accommodate students who couldn't register as a result of the strike". Some students also complained that the strike had disrupted meals, causing many to go hungry - a claim the university denied.

On Friday, Tshwane's management served notice on labour unions that it would implement its proposed salary increase after the parties failed to reach agreement, spokesperson Willa de Ruyter told reporters. But union leaders said they would interdict the salary imposition - and vowed to continue their strike.

Students and unions have called for a national bargaining council for the higher education sector to be established this year. But Pandor's spokesman, Lunga Ngqengelele, told University World News that national bargaining would interfere with the autonomy of universities. "What we can promise is that the higher education branch in the Department of Education will continue to help universities resolve disputes and disruptions."