One of South Africa’s top universities descended into violence on Monday, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon 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 from a main plaza 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 private security guards blocking the entrance to the Great Hall and police vehicles rumbled forward to confront them. 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. A bus was set on fire, and thick smoke billowed into the air.
The university, also known as Wits, accused students of throwing rocks “that could have maimed or killed people” and said protesters had responded to negotiation offers from the campus administration with threats. At least two people were arrested and some minor injuries were reported, the university said.
Education Minister Blade Nzimande appealed for dialogue and condemned the violence, saying the university’s efforts to run its academic program were being “held at ransom by irresponsible and disrespectful striking students.”
Police and student protesters also fought on a campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, the African News Agency reported. Unrest was also reported at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.
Large student protests in 2015 forced the government to freeze fee increases this year, but demonstrations started again a few weeks ago when the state recommended that universities increase fees by no more than 8 percent next year.
While the government also said it will cover 2017 fee increases for poor students despite funding challenges, protesters argue that the country must address economic inequities in the education system that date from the country’s former system of white racist rule known as apartheid.
“We need to know that models (for free education) are going to be piloted and tested in 2017,” followed by implementation in 2018, said Fasiha Hassan, a law student and protest leader at Wits.
Relations between student leaders and the university administration are so acrimonious that the two sides are not meeting in person, said Terry Tselane, a former student who is assisting with mediation efforts.
Monday’s chaos started with protesters moving through science and mathematics buildings, seeking to disrupt classes. Libraries and a large laboratory were empty. Later, there were tense exchanges.
“Move! We’re going to shoot here,” a police officer in body armor said to a student. “You don’t have to shoot me. I’m moving,” the student replied angrily.
Asked by a journalist about police ammunition, another policeman said they were rubber bullets and joked that they “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Last week, the South African police said agitators on some campuses were trying to goad officers into “another Marikana,” a reference to the police shootings of 34 miners during labor unrest in 2012. The killings shocked the nation and recalled some of the worst violence by security forces during white minority rule, which ended in 1994.
Kevin Smith, a chartered accounting student at Wits, said he had been hit by police rounds at previous protests and worried that people would eventually be killed in the demonstrations.
“That’s when our government is going to understand the seriousness of the matter,” he said.