Attempts to reopen South African universities lead to violent clashes

Weeks of student protests over rising third-level fees had closed the institutions

A student is seen during clashes with South African police at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa on Tuesday. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

A student is seen during clashes with South African police at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa on Tuesday. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters


in Cape Town

Attempts to reopen a number of universities across South Africa for lectures yesterday, after weeks of student protests had closed the institutions, led to widespread opposition and violent clashes between demonstrators and police in Johannesburg.

Students, police officers and a lecturer were injured at Johannesburg’s prestigious Witwatersrand University when protesters seeking an end to third-level fees tried to breach a security blockade set up by the police to ensure classes were not disrupted.

Academic programmes across the country have been disrupted by the FeesMustFall campaign since the middle of September, when the government announced that universities will be allowed to increase their 2017 fees by up to 8 per cent for students who can afford it.

Following similar protests in 2015 over the spiralling cost of higher education for South Africa’s burgeoning third-level student population, which has more than doubled in the post-apartheid era, South Africa president Jacob Zuma announced a freeze on fee increases for the 2016 year.

Student poll

Last week Witwatersrand University authorities asked their 37,000 students by text message: “Should Wits open on Mon 3 October subject to appropriate security protocols being in place?”

The interim results showed that of the 21,730 students who responded to the poll, 16,739 students (77 per cent) voted “yes” and 4,991 students (23 per cent) voted “no”.

Witwatersrand University vice-chancellor Adam Habib had pleaded with protestors to respect the poll and stand down so the academic programme could resume, but hundreds turned up to vent their frustrations with the system.

Some classes were also halted at Cape Town University and the University of Durban yesterday, where protesting groups reportedly tried to stop lectures and intimidated people.

University authorities have warned that unless classes resume soon a whole academic year will have gone to waste, which will have a detrimental effect on the education system, especially new students who want to attend next year.

Education costs

Poor students say they just cannot afford to attend university under the current system.

However, universities say that the cost of providing adequate education has risen sharply due to the falling value of the local currency, the rand, and the poor economic climate, which is hampering their efforts to raise money from private sources.

Furthermore, Department of Higher Education Training statistics show that government funding of universities has fallen from 49 per cent to 40 per cent over the past decade, while student fees have risen from 24 per cent to 31 per cent in order to cover the shortfall.

The announcement by higher education minister Blade Nzimande about higher 2017 fees was seen as a betrayal by a militant body of students, who want free education for all. Critics of their demands believe free education is currently impossible, given the country’s bracket of taxpayers is relatively small and the student body is growing rapidly.

A higher education summit on Monday involving all stakeholders appeared to achieve little after students felt Mr Zuma’s decision to attend another meeting after giving the opening speech was disrespectful to their plight.

Mr Zuma has since agreed to meet the students to try and plot a way to end the crisis. Concluding the summit, Mr Nzimande told attendees the government is not opposed to free higher education for the poor.

“The issue is the modalities and time,” he said.