Socialist Worker

South African students ignite growing protest movement

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2492

North West University in Mahikeng buildings on fire

North West University in Mahikeng buildings on fire

SOUTH AFRICAN university campuses are burning with revolt. Protests are bursting out across the country over fees, racism, exclusions and the way the apartheid past still shapes education. At least eight universities have seen battles in the past week.

North West University in Mahikeng (Mafeking)

Parts of the campus have been described as “a war zone”, with students claiming live rounds had been used against them. There are reports a student has been shot dead, although the university authorities deny this.

Battles between security guards and students began shortly after the campus's new Student Representative Council was appointed. The previous SRC had been dissolved by the authorities because it was too radical.

Protesters interrupted the university inauguration ceremony and then burned parts of the administration building and the science building.

University of Free State in Bloemfontein

Cleaners are campaigning and striking about outsourcing and pay cuts. Hundreds of students joined solidarity protests with the cleaners and also raised their own demands about de-racialising education.

At the beginning of this week students and workers disrupted a rugby match at the university. They were met by sustained and brutal violence from white spectators and security guards.

The next day students burnt the statue of Charles Robberts Swart, the president of apartheid South Africa from 1961 to 1967, and threw it in a pond.

There is a history or racism at the university. In 2008, four white students posted a video online showing five black university workers being made to kneel and forced to eat food which had apparently been urinated on by one of the students.

University of Pretoria

Students are demanding education in English rather than Afrikaans. This was the issue that that sparked the great Soweto revolt of 1976.

Over 20 students were arrested during the protests. Other protesters joined them for a solidarity demonstration at court, but when they returned to the campus they were met by hostile whites who barred their entry.

University of Cape Town

The months-long battle to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes continues. It has broadened to take up issues of exclusions, accommodation and the curriculum.

Students set up a symbolic shack on the campus to highlight the lack of housing. This week there have been protests every day, leading to cancelled classes.

On Tuesday in protest at the housing crisis and other issues, students set fire to apartheid-era paintings and a plaque celebrating South Africans prime minister in the early 20th century Jan Smuts.

A bus was set alight on the Lower Campus, another damaged and the office of the rector was set alight.

University of the Western Cape (UWC)

Workers joined students at a protest outside the administration building and a march around the campus.

The workers are demanding an end to outsourcing and a minimum wage of 10,000 rand (£460) a month. Police and security guards attacked the protesters.

On Monday, the university had been granted a court order prohibiting disruptions to the academic programme by protesters. UWC protesters said, “We are in constant fear for our lives.

“UWC management instead of engaging workers and students instructs their very services olice and private security) sworn to protect and serve to come crush and brutalize us.

“Amid interdicts and warning of arrests should we protest again, workers and students have resolutely gathered again today and have demonstrated in front of the admin building.

“All students are called to come stand with our parents in their fight for better treatment and wages.

“No retreat, No surrender.”

Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Students marched around the Bellville campus on Wednesday mobilising other students to join them in protest after they submitted a memorandum of grievances on Monday. Their demands include the call for the 78 students who were suspended last year during the #FeesMustFall protests be allowed back on campus.

Other demands were for two more residence halls should be opened with a minimum of 300 beds each. And that no student be financially excluded and that students with outstanding debt be allowed to register.

Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg

Students occupied the administration block demanding additional residences. At present some students are forced to sleep in libraries and campus buildings because they can’t afford accommodation.

In a statement last month the Wits Fees Must Fall group said, “We seek to rectify the structural violence which has led to the academic and financial exclusion of black students, the exploitation of black workers and the generalised intellectual dishonour of black academics and also bridge the gap between whites and blacks which have been acquired by over 500 years of land dispossession and oppression.

“We also do acknowledge that our struggles, even though geographically separated with our brothers and sisters beyond the shore of our beloved Africa, our struggles against anti-blackness doesn’t exist in isolation and we therefore seek for global solidarity from similar movements around the world like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes must fall Oxford.

“This leads us to the desire and agency to end life of the University of the Witwatersrand as we know it!”

University of KwaZulu-Natal

The Westville, Edgewood, Howard College, and Pietermaritzburg campuses saw protests.

Protesters, mostly gardeners, cleaners and security guards, began a strike last week to demand that the University end outsourcing. Some students have joined them.

Unions call to 'rally behind students against these racists'

The ruling ANC this week expressed outrage at what it is says are signs of deteriorating race relations and tensions at universities.

It admitted that the clashes were over real grievances, but condemned violence regardless of the circumstances.

But the more radical Economic Freedom Fighters has backed the students.

EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said, “No form of intimidation by white racists must ever deter any freedom-loving South Africans from engaging in protests to improve the lives of the dejected and condemned,”

The Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) condemned attacks on black students by what it called “some racist hooligans” and said it would stand by the students.

“This arrogant act of bigotry and criminality needs to be dealt with swiftly by the law enforcement agencies,” spokersperson Sizwe Pamla said.

“We call on workers and members of the communities to rally behind students against these racists and refuse to allow these universities to be turned into the last outposts of apartheid bigotry.”

“As Cosatu, we will not stand and remain neutral on the students’ struggles.

Cosatu also attacked university vice-chancellors, and accused them of running campuses like “concentration camps” while doing nothing about student conflicts.

“University vice-chancellors are all talk and no action and have been exposed by the student protests. They have barricaded themselves behind police and security walls and are not behaving like people in charge of fountains of knowledge, but like paranoid securocrats running concentration camps. We challenge them to practice what they preach and stop commentating on problems that need their intervention”.

There is a fund for legal costs for arrested students. To find out details of how to contribute, please contact Charlie Kimber


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