Tear gas on campus

South African universities are burning

Students run for cover during a protest for lower tuition fees, at the University of the Witwatersrand. Photo by Themba Hadebe/AP/HH.

Molotov cocktails, rubber bullets and a fire-extinguishing-foam death: there’s trouble brewing at South Africa’s universities. “Students claim that apartheid lives on here.”

(Het originele, Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier)
This autumn, University College student Thomas Meijer (21) will graduate from Stellenbosch University in South Africa. It’s the only university that’s still open, he says. There were so many protests at the other universities, they have all been closed down. “This campus is now a militarised zone”, he continues. “On every corner, there are security guards, dressed in black and armed with shields, truncheons and pepper spray: ‘the men in black’. Then there are the camouflaged ‘tactical response teams’, armed with rubber bullets. The slogan on their vans is ‘We kick ass’.”

Tensions among students in South Africa flared in September when the government announced it would raise tuition fees by eight per cent. Protests broke out, under hashtag #FeesMustFall, among black students and students of colour, who often come from poor backgrounds and cannot afford higher tuition fees. But more specifically, they regard the increase as a way to exclude parts of the black population from higher education. Now, every part of university life has been turned upside down. Students have set fire to cars and buildings while the police respond with Molotov cocktails and tear gas.

According to Meijer, the violence is reasonably under control at Stellenbosch. “People have set fire to vans and buildings, even with people inside, at other universities. Nothing like that has happened here yet. I’ve noticed a lot of broken windows but the authorities are determined to continue the courses at any cost. I seriously wonder how much money is being spent on security.

“A friend was at a tutorial when rioters burst into the class room and tore up the exams. She quickly hid her paper in her pocket. A few weeks ago, someone turned on a fire extinguisher and filled a class room with foam. It’s more dangerous than it seems: someone died at Witwatersrand University, which is to the north of Johannesburg, when he suffocated in the foam.”

The international students were warned about the tensions on arrival. The first protest he saw was in the second week of September. “It was in the run-up to the announcement about the increase in the tuition fees. A group of students occupied the library. It was only a slight inconvenience to us, but I heard lots of people complaining. Mainly rich white kids, actually.

“It was worse for the students who were holding the protests. It was fine for three or four days, then the university wanted them out of there so they hired external security guards – they are definitely more violent than the police. The universities arrange their own security so the police are not always involved when students are cleared out of a building. That’s when these armed guys turned up, all in black, and they removed the students forcibly with violence and pepper spray.”

Later on, a group of students occupied International Office again. “The intention was to hold a peaceful demonstration and to hold a daily debate on the role of Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch sees itself as an international university with international standards and values, but it still clings to white, African traditions.

“I attended the second debate. There were hundreds of students. It was awfully chaotic. To outsiders, it looks as if the group of protesting students is united, but there are lots of differences of opinion about how they should arrange the protests. A small group wants to disrupt lectures and occupy buildings, but not everyone wants to do that. There were also people with caps representing political parties – they want to bring politics into it – while others think that politics are not the issue here.

The students frequently occupy buildings. “Later, there was a peaceful demonstration at International Office. The police were called in – I think the court ordered them to clear the students out. When the students refused to leave, they were removed by force. There were a lot of arrests and ten or twenty people were suspended. I recognised one of them. He was pushed into a van as I watched.

“Students say that apartheid lives on at Stellenbosch. People still hold on to Afrikaans, the language of the elite class. And people only learn about the white history of South Africa; you never hear anything about the country before it was colonised. A friend told me that they are not taught African history at secondary school, only European history. Besides, and this is significant, more than eighty per cent of the lecturers at Stellenbosch are white and sixty per cent of the students are too. It’s not very representative of society.” Eighty percent of South-Africa’s population is black.

“Rector Wim de Villiers was going to speak to the students, so hundreds of them gathered on campus. They demanded that the course prices would not be raised and that employees who weren’t highly qualified would be re-hired. In many cases, those employees are the parents of the black students. They also wanted the lecture material to be decolonised.

“De Villiers never turned up; instead, he sent a video with his response. People started booing. In addition, he sent a woman of colour as his spokesperson and most of the students really hated that. It looked as if he had only sent her because of the colour of her skin. That same evening, students occupied more buildings. They think ‘this is it: something has to change now.’”

Anoushka Kloosterman

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Tear gas on campus

Molotov cocktails, rubber bullets and a fire-extinguishing-foam death: there’s …