Student protests spiral out of control, one man dies

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma instructed ministers to “deal with the mayhem that is destroying our institutions of higher learning”, as violent student protests closed universities, injured several people and claimed the life of a university cleaner. By Thursday, 17 of the country’s 26 public universities were no longer operating fully.

Student protests have spread across the country over the past 12 days, with police using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse students. At least 30 students have reportedly been arrested during the new round of demonstrations.

On Sunday the national newspaper City Press reported that government had thrashed out a new countrywide campus security plan, with police expected to "enforce the laws of the country in an uncompromising manner".

Minutes of a security meeting held last Thursday, which the newspaper had seen, added that "the criminal justice system should create strong examples of how the law deals with people who venture into acts of vandalism, intimidation and violence". A multi-provincial police task force is being set up to deal more effectively with the protests, City Press said.

There were clashes in Johannesburg and Grahamstown, where 11 students were arrested and several injured, and running battles between students and security guards at a University of Johannesburg campus, AFP photographers reported.

The University of Limpopo in the north closed indefinitely, after what spokesperson Kgalema Mohuba described as “protracted, violent student protests”. Students were instructed to vacate residences by 17h00 on Wednesday afternoon. Vice-chancellor Mahlo Mokgalong said the university was closing because its property was under attack.

Security was tightened at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, after petrol bombs were reportedly found on its main campus. Earlier this month a law library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal was set alight.

On Tuesday Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said government would support poorer universities to repair damage caused by protesters, calculated at around R600 million (US$44 million). The funds to help universities recover would otherwise have assisted needy students.

Academic concerns

There is growing concern that the 2016 academic year and final exams will not be completed next month, ahead of the summer holidays, at least at some universities. Adding a semester or a year to a degree would be a major financial burden for already-struggling families.

The anxiety of an apparent majority of students about completing the academic year found expression through surveys conducted at some of the universities that have been closed for more than a week and are planning to reopen this week.

Last Thursday Wits conducted an electronic poll to canvass the views of students and staff, who were asked if they wanted academic activities to resume on 3 October “if there was appropriate security in place”.

It announced on Friday that interim results, audited by one of South Africa’s top firms, showed 21,730 responses, with 77% of students wanting the academic programme to resume and 23% voting ‘no’. Auditors, said Wits, were still working to verify the staff poll.

At the nearby University of Johannesburg, academic activities continued despite a spate of violent clashes, as the “overwhelming majority” of students were determined to continue with lecturers, the institution said.

“Attempts at disruption by a very small minority of protesters have been contained, and the university is doing everything possible to ensure that the situation remains safe and secure.” The university also condemned the behaviour of security guards who were filmed assaulting protesters and journalists.


There have been student protests sporadically across the country this year, following on the massive #FeesMustFall demonstrations of 2015 – but involving far fewer students and far more violence.

Halls of residence and libraries have been set alight, and in May an auditorium at the University of Johannesburg was extensively damaged after being firebombed.

Protests escalated after a 19 September announcement by Minister Nzimande that universities could raise fees for 2017 by up to 8% – a strategy universities supported, although under law universities decide on fee levels.

The government, said Nzimande, would find resources to cover the fee increase for all students from poor, working- or middle-class families with household incomes of up to R600,000 (US$43,700) a year.

The cabinet statement said higher education had been one of the biggest beneficiaries in this year’s national budget, receiving an additional 18% for 2016-17. After mass protests last year, President Zuma froze tuition fee increases for 2015-16, creating a shortfall of R2.3 billion. Government provided R1.9 billion of the shortfall.

Also: “More than R4.5 billion in 2016-17 has been reprioritised in order to make it available to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to enable poor students to access higher education.” Government had responded to the pleas of needy students, while students whose families could afford to pay for university should continue to do so.

While the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training Funding completed its work, the university system had to continue functioning, cabinet stressed.

Appeal to end violence

But many students did not agree and took to the streets, promising to bring higher education to a standstill in pursuit of free higher education.

Cabinet appealed to students to raise concerns appropriately and in line with the Constitution. “Recent violence marred student protests, when the country witnessed vandalism, destruction of property, burning of libraries and now even the death of a university worker,” it said.

Celumusa Ntuli (39), a cleaner at Wits, died after protestors entered the student residence he was cleaning on 20 September and released fire extinguishers. He fell ill and was treated in hospital for several days, but later died of complications. Wits said that an investigation was being conducted into the incident and the cause of death was still to be determined.

The cabinet statement said Zuma had instructed government’s Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster to deal with the mayhem. Law enforcement agencies would “leave no stone unturned in finding those responsible for the criminal activities witnessed.”

Cabinet urged stakeholders to work together to ensure universities were able to receive the school-leaving class of 2016. “All stakeholders, especially parents and guardians, need to be actively involved in finding lasting solutions to the education funding challenge.”