University Students Protest #FeesMustFall: A Violent Week Shakes South Africa to Its Core


One week after violent protests erupted in Johannesburg which the lead government to demand that "violent campus protest stop immediately" and left student leaders and some protesters arrested, students continue to flock University of the Witwatersrand to demonstrate objection to the pending tuition fee increase effective 2017.

South African students have had a long struggle with education and they don't have a history of backing down. Last year's #FeesMustFall succeeded in achieving a 0% increase in tuition fees. However, the problem according to the UN Dispatch, is that access to institutions of higher learning persisted.

When Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training announced that universities are allowed to increase tuition no more than 8%, students did not receive it well. While to government offered provisions saying that it will cover the fees for poor students, Nzimande's announcement did not include students who cannot afford to pay for their education. Further, this will be a bigger burden for students and their families who are struggling to pay the existing fees as they are, without increase. This caused unrest among the student population accusing the plan for being insufficient.

Protests began last month after the announcement. Students took to their sentiments to the streets and this time they have an even bigger end goal: free education for all and free education now.

One by one, campuses across the country are being shut down by students as they carry out their protests and make their demands.

Last week South Africa caught international attention after a student protest turned violent. Nine people were arrested for throwing stones and arson.The incident happened near the University of the Witwatersrand, also known as Wits where 2 vehicles were set on fire.

University spokesperson Shirona Patel has identified 2 of the arrested protesters as Wits students, 2 more are from other schools and five are non-students.

Wits was forced to impose campus restrictions for security reasons last Thursday night because of smashed windows and flooded rooms. Students on the other hand accused the police for indiscriminately firing rubber bullets on a residential building on campus on Friday evening and the security restrictions was equivalent to a curfew that violates student rights.

Student leader and protester from Wits, Mcebo Dlamini, was denied bail by a Johannesburg court. The student leader was one of those arrested for alleged violence and intimidation during protests. The next hearing in his case is Nov. 15.

As tensions continue to rise and classes remain disrupted, some academics from Wits called for a meeting at the the Holy Trinity Catholic Church that lies adjacent to the university, last Monday (Oct. 10). It was supposed to be "a peace accord for the university, so that it can unite to solve the goals currently facing higher education."

Students were outraged to see University of the Witwatersrand's Vice Chancellor Adam Habib inside the church. One of the student leaders protesting outside, Vuyani Pambo called out to Habib, "You are a very cruel man. I hate you,"

"Habib must go." The protesters chanted.

Habib stood to leave quietly when the skirmish broke and the parish pastor, Father Graham Pugin was hit in the face by the police with the rubber bullet while he was introducing himself outside the gates of the church wearing his robe and holding his hands up in the air.

"I had presumed they would recognize that it was a bad mistake to shoot a robed clergyman at the church gates," the reverend said Tuesday, the day after he was shot.

Habib was encircled by a number of students when he was leaving. The vice chancellor was able to go unharmed after the student leader Pambo asked that he be allowed to go "to show the country that we are not criminals."

Wits representatives say they had been invited by the church to the meeting. Habib said, "We are disappointed that people felt that we should exit the peace meeting even after we had been invited to attend it. We remain committed to working with students and student leaders in trying to find solutions to these issues, many of which can only be resolved at the national level."

Unlike Habib, other university leaders were not spared from the students' anger. Last Friday, protesters encircled Vice-Chancellor Max Price of the University of Cape Town outside a campus building, and he was pushed and took two punches to the body, according to the university.

Other institutions have also reported violent attacks that included vandalism and stone throwing in the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University in the city of Grahamstown.

Free education is not a new concept, there have been success stories where states were able to provide free tertiary education to its citizens. Education is also important in eliminating injustices and inequalities and correcting the mistakes of the past - access to it is key to empowering a new generation and high costs and tuition fees automatically deny those who cannot afford the privilege of learning and knowledge.

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