Law library torched, students arrested in fees protests

Academic activities at all five campuses of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa have been suspended after two weeks of violent protest which saw the torching of one of the country’s finest law libraries on the Howard College campus in Durban.

The law library is housed in the iconic Howard College building, which gave its name to the campus after it was opened in 1931. Its vandalism has drawn widespread criticism from a range of sectors, including academics and alumni.

The arson attack last Tuesday night came hard on the heels of the torching of the senate chamber and six vehicles on the nearby Westville campus in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The week before there was the burning of a coffee shop on the Howard College campus and an examination hall on the Pietermaritzburg campus, situated approximately 80 kilometres inland from the east coast city of Durban.

The unrest at Westville resulted in the arrest of 24 students who appeared in court and were granted bail.

White privilege

The arson attacks are part of a series of ongoing protests across South African universities at the prospect of fee increases. Students are complaining about the cost of higher education which, they argue, perpetuates white privilege.

Tensions at the University of KwaZulu-Natal or UKZN worsened when it emerged that a female student reported she had been raped by a police officer at the Pietermaritzburg campus last Monday.

A university spokesperson said a case of sexual assault had been reported to the university. The alleged incident is reported to have happened off campus and is under investigation, he said. The university cancelled all lectures and events on Tuesday in an attempt to control the unrest.

Both the ruling African National Congress or ANC and the opposition Democratic Alliance have condemned the behaviour of students, the destruction of university property and the intimidation and harassment of university leaders.

Outrage over book-burning

The ANC likened the burning of books in the law library to the actions of the Nazi organisation, the German Student Union, which in the 1930s ran a book-burning campaign, targeting books written by Jews, liberals and communists.

“It was a prelude to fascism and the holocaust,” said Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor in her capacity as chair of the sub-committee on education, health, science and technology of the ANC national executive committee.

In a statement, Pandor said unlawful conduct could not be justified by the mistaken belief that burning books is an attack on white monopoly capital.

She said the ANC called on students and staff at all universities to reject violence and to ensure the fees commission, convened by South African President Jacob Zuma to investigate the feasibility of free higher education for poor students, completes its work timeously.

“We call on university authorities to be vigilant and call on students to protest lawfully and to direct their activism through appropriate university and political structures,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance called for “law enforcement to make sure those responsible for this arson [at UKZN] face the full might of the law”.

Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana told Parliament last Wednesday that underfunding of higher education had bred disaffection among students – but the brutal truth was that the state paid for the lack of fee increase for the 2016 year with unbudgeted funds, at the expense of other government programmes.

‘Misleading’ reports

Media reports have differed on when an announcement around fees will be made by the presidential commission. Manana has been quoted as saying that the fees commission would only conclude its work next year.

By last Wednesday Gwebinkundla Qonde, director-general of the Department of Higher Education and Training, suggested an announcement would be made by the end of the month.

He noted with concern the continuing student unrest at UKZN, and “misleading” reports that suggested the government had already decided on university fee adjustments for 2017.

“Government has yet to pronounce itself on university fee adjustments for 2017,” he said.

Qonde said Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande was still gathering further views from all stakeholders, including students and university councils, before any announcement.

“We are hopeful that these current consultations with all stakeholders will conclude successfully, with an announcement in this regard expected to be made later this month.”

The government had invested heavily to assist students who come from poor families through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme or NSFAS, Qonde said, and the fund would be strengthened to progressively implement free higher education for the poor.

He also said government was committed to providing better support for middle-class students as a group that was not currently supported through NSFAS.