One of South Africa's top universities descended into violence Monday, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at stone-throwing students who are locked in a bitter national dispute with administrators and the government over demonstrators' demands for free education. Stun grenades boomed and gunshots crackled as police cleared protesters at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the most prominent site of a student movement that recently shut other universities and prompted official warnings that badly needed medics, engineers and other skilled workers might not be able to graduate this year. "Hell broke out," said Jo Seoka, an Anglican bishop who described the pandemonium that erupted as students hurled rocks at security guards blocking the entrance to the Great Hall, prompting police vehicles to rumble forward. Seoka, who joined an earlier student march, said police had "militarized" the campus, and he criticized them for not wearing IDs on their uniforms that would make them accountable. As police helicopters circled, some protesters spilled into city streets.
South African police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades against students protesting for free education in Johannesburg. Two students were arrested and another and one staff member were injured in the violence on Tuesday at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits. Similar unrest has occurred since last month at other financially struggling South African universities, forcing a number, including Wits, to close. The university sought to re-open on Tuesday - the main campus was disrupted, but classes proceeded on other Wits campuses. Protesters said they want free university education to help close South Africa's inequality gap, which is still largely divided along colour lines.
One afternoon last week, I went to the supermarket near my flat in Cape Town. The shop was almost empty, and as I stood and dithered over different kinds of spaghetti I could hear a woman and her friend in the next aisle discussing the protests. For nearly a year, students at many of South Africa's public universities had been rallying against proposed national tuition hikes. The demonstrations had recently intensified, and the focus had shifted. Fee increases were no longer the issue; the protesters now demanded higher education that was both free and decolonized--scrubbed of its apartheid-era European bias.
Vice chancellors warn that students might not be able to finish the academic year if a national dispute over financing higher education is not resolved soon. Twenty-two years after the end of white minority rule, grievances over economic inequities are fueling unrest that has forced the closure of some of South Africa's most prominent universities, which are struggling to cover costs. Opinion has splintered among students, faculty, parents and the government, which acknowledges funding shortfalls but accuses a radical minority of bringing campuses to a standstill. One target of protesters' condemnation is Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, also known as Wits. Habib, in turn, has suggested it is ironic that Wits, whose student population is mostly black, could unravel because of protesters who say they are committed to "decolonization."
It is not the first time South Africa has seen student mobilisation. Fees protests, campus shutdowns and mass political violence and repression have been held at historically black universities and colleges for a long time. What makes the 2015-16 period distinct is that for the first time our student movement spread on to historically white universities, which opened doors to non-white students after the fall of apartheid in 1994, but continued to retain their colonial foundations. With this expansion returned the demand for decolonisation of education, echoed in the 2015 #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town, along with long-standing calls for free education and the end to outsourcing practices for campus workers. The movement experimented with flat structure and open, direct democracy during mass occupations.