Disturbances, student deaths close two universities

Student demonstrations have halted classes at two South African universities. The off-campus rape and murders of two foreign students – a Zimbabwean and a Nigerian – sparked protest at Vaal University of Technology in the heart of the country. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast, action against changes to student financial aid turned violent.

The two young women were shot dead in their off-campus room, with their bodies discovered last weekend. They were both enrolled for a national diploma in logistics. Students took to the streets in protest, and refused to attend lectures until the university improved security.

The killings were the latest in a string of many involving students on the campus and in its vicinity. Last year, two female students were killed at campus residences and one female student was raped. A male student was murdered just outside the campus this year.

Financial aid protests

At the Westville campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, lectures were suspended after students barricaded roads and burned cars off-campus while calling for more student funding to be made available.

The protests, which started at the Westville campus last Sunday, continued on Monday and spilled over to the Pietermaritzburg campus.

The university recently changed funding requirements from a 50% pass rate to 70%.

Students were also unhappy with a decision by the university to close the registration appeals committee process, which facilitates payment plan agreements with students who are in debt.

Students further objected to an increase in the payment of upfront fees, which they said they are unable to do.

UKZN spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said the university would open on 29 September after the spring recess. He said the decision to suspend the programmes was regrettable considering that it was so close to the end of the academic year.

Efforts would be made to track and bring to book culprits who had destroyed property during the disturbances.

Higher education department responds

The Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, expressed shock at the killings of the two students at Vaal University of Technology, and called on the university management, campus community and society to ensure the safety of students residing in both on- and off-campus residences.

The department acknowledged the lack of sufficient and adequate on-campus housing in the post-school sector, that resulted in significant health and safety risks for students.

“Private residence provision in the South African higher education landscape must be regulated by individual institutions and safety and security must be top priority,” it said in a statement.

Institutions should take heed of the Report on the Ministerial Committee for the Review of the Provision of Student Housing at South African Universities, which among other things recommended setting minimum standards for student housing, public and private, and creating a private student accommodation accreditation system.

The DHET condemned violent student protests at universities – student protests are quite a regular occurrence in South Africa, and regularly they turn aggressive – and particularly the violence and destruction of property that took place at the UKZN Westville campus.

“We call upon the management and the council of UKZN to act decisively and take strong action against anyone found to have contributed to the violence and destruction of property,” the department said in a statement.

The university was also urged to engage the police to investigate and arrest anybody who engaged in illegal activities and to help safeguard university property.

The department acknowledged the right of all people to “protest and voice their opinions and grievances”. But in doing so they had a duty to be dignified and peaceful and to behave in a way that respected the rights and property of others.

Khaye Nkwanyana, a DHET spokesperson, said in a statement that the department would not tolerate the destruction of property and threats to lives.

“The primary objective of our universities is teaching, learning and research, and these activities should remain sacrosanct.”

Government blamed

Professor Belinda Bozzoli, the opposition Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of higher education, said the DHET’s call for the police to intervene at UKZN would only treat the symptoms of the problem.

“Once again we see desperate and angry students rioting. These frequent riots are the product of an African National Congress government policy on higher education which has seen funding for universities decline in real terms since 1994, and funding for poor students failing to meet demand.

“It is incumbent upon the government to address the serious shortfalls in the funding provided to struggling students and universities alike,” she said.

Bozzoli said many universities, including UKZN, had an extremely high number of poor students and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme shortfall seriously affected their income.