Violent protests at universities, including Cape Town

There was continuing student unrest at universities across South Africa last week, with small numbers of students causing a lot of violence. Some students were arrested and some injured. At the University of Cape Town, protesting students torched vehicles, burned artwork, invaded residences and petrol-bombed the vice-chancellor’s office.

The Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, said on Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned by reports of continuing student unrest at six universities”.

Of particular concern was the level of violence and destruction of university property – “criminal vandalism that cannot be tolerated as this infrastructure belongs to the people of this country and represents the provision of higher education for the benefit of our young people.

“Incidents of violent physical attacks and injury to students can never be justified in a democracy, which promotes tolerance, acceptance of different viewpoints and the voices of both majorities and minorities.” In some cases, said the DHET, there had been “incidents of blatant racism”.

Unrest around the country

On Friday, the higher education ministry condemned the burning of a bus at the University of the Witwatersrand, and damage to property and disruption at North-West University.

By Friday the University of Pretoria was preparing to close two campuses following threats of a shutdown by some students and safety concerns. The issue at this historically Afrikaans university is the language policy, which is under review.

There were “ugly scenes” on Thursday following a stand-off between student members of the conservative Afrikaner group AfriForum and other students, Eyewitness News reported. Groups, largely divided by race, were separated by security guards and police “with occasional scuffles being broken up”.

There were violent student protests at Walter Sisulu University, and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal protests continued on four campuses, mostly involving outsourced workers who downed tools and demanded to be employed directly.

But it was the University of Cape Town that seemed to get the worst of student fury.

Cape Town

Last Monday, authorities at the university watched as students affiliated to #RhodesMustFall – a movement that arose last year dedicated to eradicating colonial symbols and transforming universities – built a shack on Residence Road and cordoned off the area, calling it Shackville.

The students said they were highlighting lack of student accommodation and alleged racism in allocating student rooms, especially in favour of white international students.

The problem was that the shack was in the middle of the road and caused a traffic blockage that rippled all the way to a major highway, and was accompanied by setting fires.

The university asked the small group of students to move the shack 20 metres away onto an lawn. Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town or UCT, said in a public letter on Thursday:

“At this point, tensions escalated, and some protesters started resorting to violence, including: invading residences and residence kitchens; burning barricades; burning portraits and other artworks stolen from residences; general vandalism; and intimidation of members of the campus community. Several fires were started on campus, all of which were extinguished.”

A university vehicle and a shuttle bus were set alight and destroyed and Price’s office in Bremner Building was “petrol-bombed and gutted”. He added that police were called in on Tuesday to restore order and eight people were arrested, seven of them university students.

Both sides go to court

By Wednesday, the university had had enough. Five students were suspended, the university obtained an interdict barring 16 students from further protests, and charges were laid against leaders of #RhodesMustFall “associated with acts of violence and criminality. Since the violence started, we have also dramatically increased the security presence on campus”.

In return, students laid charges against Price, alleging assault, malicious damage to property and intimidation. Police said they were investigating.

One #RhodesMustFall supporter who did not want to be named told News24: “Students were assaulted and intimidated but no one cares to tell this story”.

“#RhodesMustFall took to social media making a clarion call for any evidence of brutality students could present to them against police and security,” said the paper.

Price said the university had tried to engage with #RhodesMustFall this year but “some members have made it abundantly clear that their aim is to create confrontation and to shut down the university.

“We are equally determined not to allow a small group of violent protesters to prevent 27,000 students and 4,500 staff from exercising their right to study and work in a safe environment.”

Price said the university had always supported peaceful protest, but drew the line at criminality and violence. That is what had happened “and that’s why we have acted firmly and strongly”.

The accommodation question

Answering student claims about accommodation, Price said the university had 6,600 student beds and was therefore able to accommodate only about a quarter of its students. It assisted in placing more than 2,000 students in private accommodation.

The need for accommodation was increasing by the year and its affordability was a critical issue for many students.

He denied that the University of Cape Town gave preference to white or international students in residences. “Over 75% of students in residences are black and this figure is rising year on year. Our residence policy also ensures we give preference to financial aid students.”

University spokesperson Elijah Moholola told University World News on Thursday that the campus had been stabilised and had been operational without disruption since Wednesday. It had been working hard to resolve all outstanding accommodation cases speedily.

Government commitment to help

The DHET said it was fully aware of the shortage of residential accommodation at many universities, as well as other student issues.

In 2015 the department announced a policy on student accommodation norms and standards and allocated nearly R1.7 billion (US$110 million) for student housing projects.

It said there was much evidence of government’s commitment to tackling problems for financially needy but deserving students, including a presidential commission currently underway to investigate the long-term funding of higher education.

Since the #FeesMustFall campaign began last October, the department had injected an extra R6.9 billion into the university sector to: cater for a 0% fee increase; allow students qualifying for aid to register in 2016 without upfront payment; ensure no financial exclusions; support students already in the system towards graduation; and help students with historic debt to complete their studies.

Ongoing disruption of universities was therefore disappointing.

In a statement on Friday, the Ministry of Higher Education and Training noted a resurgence of student unrest at universities “with distress”.

Minister Blade Nzimande, the statement said, “strongly condemns the burning of the vice-chancellor’s office and incineration of artwork paintings, including the fine work by Richard Baholo, the first black fine arts masters graduate of University of Cape Town in 1994”.

“We urge universities to stamp their authority, act decisively and involve law enforcement agencies to apprehend those behind the damage to property.”