University leaders seek help as protests turn violent

Violent protests and racial clashes closed universities around South Africa last week. Vice-chancellors called for help in identifying perpetrators of campus violence, who showed “total disregard for the academic project, the rules of engagement and the laws and Constitution”. There have been arrests, injuries, burning of vehicles and destruction of buildings.

The peaceful, non-racial nature of the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall student movements of last year has well and truly ended.

Substantial gains made by the students, including a 0% fee increase and additional student aid, could be jeopardised in future by the high security and other costs being incurred by protest-hit institutions.

Last week the national campus crisis reached North-West University, where the Mafikeng campus administration building was destroyed during a student politics protest. White rugby supporters assaulted black protestors against the outsourcing of workers after the protestors invaded the field during a match at the University of the Free State on Monday night.

There were more protests at the University of Pretoria, where there had been a racial clash over language policy between students the Friday before. Also the previous week, students at the University of Cape Town aligned to the anti-colonial #RhodesMustFall movement burned vehicles and artwork and gutted the vice-chancellor’s office.

Condemnation all round

The Department of Higher Education and Training or DHET, Universities South Africa, the ruling African National Congress and opposition Democratic Alliance parties, among others, condemned the violent nature of the demonstrations.

The protests, said DHET, showed the existence of fringe elements seeking to destabilise campuses “as part of a perverse political agenda and attempting to dislodge legitimately elected student, worker and staff structures through illegal activity, violence and destruction”.

“These fringe elements seem hell bent to exploit every problem as part of seeking to hijack legitimate student concerns for their narrow ends,” it said, calling on all progressive forces on campuses to distance themselves from intimidation, violence and vandalism.

Fingers are pointing at the Economic Freedom Fighters or EFF, a populist party whose members wear red shirts and berets and whose leader Julius Malema was thrown out of the ruling African National Congress party. The EFF won 6% of the vote in the last election.

“We need to intensify the struggle against racism, but at the same time condemn the short-sighted anti-white chauvinism rearing its ugly head on some campuses, as ours is a struggle to build transformed and non-racial universities and South African society,” said the department.

On Thursday, in a joint statement released by Universities South Africa, vice-chancellors “noted with grave concern the nature and form of disruptive protests and escalating violence” at some universities, most recently North-West, Cape Town, Pretoria and Free State.

“It appears that these violent acts are being planned and committed by groups and individuals with a singular intent – to deliberately disrupt and destabilise our universities through intimidation and violence.”

The vice-chancellors said university executives had engaged constructively on continuous demands being made and had redirected limited financial resources to ensure the safety of all people on campuses. They recognised the right to protest but could not condone some of the methods used and were not equipped to deal with violent forms of protest action.

“We particularly condemn all acts of violence, criminal acts, damage to property and behaviour that impinges on the constitutional rights of others. We also denounce external parties that increase divisions between our students and staff.”

The Democratic Alliance was more specific about political meddling in campus protests. Malema and other EFF leaders were using social media to encourage disruption, and a series of tweets from the EFF’s official account had clearly incited violence, intolerance and destruction at North-West. “This is unacceptable, and may even be criminal,” the party said.

“We also call on all radical and extremist movements, including the fringe-group ‘Front National’ at Tukkies [University of Pretoria], to refrain from fanning the flames of violence and destruction – and ultimately preventing students from accessing their right to education.”

The protests

North-West University’s Mafikeng campus was shut indefinitely on Thursday after protesting students torched vehicles and two buildings on Wednesday night and burned down the administration block including a science centre.

The violence began after student supporters of the EFF disrupted the inauguration of a newly appointed student representative council. They were furious over the university dissolving the council – which management said was not performing its duties – and replacing it with a new one.

There were clashes between security guards and students, and teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets were reportedly fired to disperse the protesters. Several students were injured.

On Monday night at the University of the Free State, 17 minutes into an inter-university rugby match, staff and student protestors against outsourcing invaded the field. After a while some spectators ran onto the field and assaulted protestors. The protestors were black, the spectators white. There were reports of more disruption later and the university closed.

University of the Free State Vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen, who was watching the match, said the reaction from a group of spectators had “not only opened old wounds, but trampled literally and figuratively the dignity and humanity of other human beings. This we condemn in no uncertain terms and no stone will be left unturned to find those who acted so violently.”

He said protests had been led not only by students but also by people who had no association with the university.

Disruptions continued on the campus on Tuesday and students reportedly damaged buildings, a statue and windows. The university will reopen on Monday.

Jansen described the events as a set-back for transformation. “While we have made major progress in recent years – from residence integration to a more inclusive language policy to a core curriculum to a very successful ‘leadership for change’ intervention for student leaders – we still have a long way to go.”

The University of Pretoria remained shut last week and protests continued after a racial clash on 18 February. Some EFF students under the #AfrikaansMustFall banner took to the streets demanding that Afrikaans be removed as a medium of instruction. They clashed with students of the conservative group AfriForum, who want the Afrikaans language and culture protected.

“We do not condone violence, intimidation, inciting hatred and hate speech by any party to anyone,” the university authorities said.

The protests led to the postponement of discussions on a new language policy that could see English adopted as the primary language of instruction with Afrikaans and Sepedi used to provide support to students, and efforts to promote multilingualism.

Vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey said on Wednesday that the university would remain closed for the week while management continued to engage with student leaders and stakeholders in order to seek a way forward. Management said security would be tightened next week.