South Africa: Students escalate fee fight

Students at universities across South Africa have been demonstrating for the complete removal of university fees for poor students.

They are pushing for the realisation of the demands raised by the #FeesMustFall campaign last year. This was the largest wave of protests since the fall of Apartheid and drew tens of thousands of students into the streets.

In this fresh round of protests, students are taking action at universities across six provinces. The protests erupted when Blade Nzimande, the minister responsible for higher education, announced that it would be left to individual universities to determine fee rises for 2017.

Students were, at least, hoping for no fee rise. Had that been the case, the protests might not have erupted. However, the government has allowed administrations to raise fees by up to 8% at a time when many students already cannot afford to go to university.

Mass protests

The students responded to the proposed fee hikes by organising mass meetings on campuses. They had a series of sit-ins and meetings, and disrupted lectures. Barricades were erected at some campuses.

The response from university managements and police has been vicious. They are determined there will be no rerun of last year’s campaign, which caught them flat-footed.

Faced with the re-emergence of campus protests, university managers have called in private security companies and police to disrupt student mass meetings.

One of the private security corporations is Vetus Schola. It employs former special operations soldiers of the Apartheid military. They hunted and murdered anti-Apartheid activists in the 1980s. Vetus Schola security thugs also unleashed a reign of terror in a mining community during a workers’ strike some years ago.

Repression

Now they have been sent onto campuses to brutalise students. Already a student has been shot through the thigh in Johannesburg, allegedly by a private security guard.

The police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. They wear body armour and wave loaded guns at protesters. In one incident, police fired a rubber bullet point blank into the face of a priest who was sheltering students inside his church in the neighbourhood of Wits University in central Johannesburg.

Soldiers have also been deployed to the University of the Free State to “assist” police. They use automatic rifles. The mainstream media have not reported on this.

On October 10, students at Wits University tried to use the main hall for a meeting. Police armoured cars and a water cannon charged at them. Heavily armed officers threw stun grenades into the crowd and opened fire with rubber bullets. Tear gas was also fired into university lecture rooms to clear buildings.

A number of university workers who were not part of the protest were severely injured by the bullets, burned by the grenades or had breathing problems from the tear gas.

The students responded by taking their protest outside the campus and into the surrounding area of Braamfontein. Bystanders shocked at the police response sympathised with the students and joined the protests.

Other people also joined in. Poor and homeless people smashed shop windows and grabbed what they could — especially clothing. The mainstream media called them “criminal elements”.

The next night, police unleashed a reign of terror on student residences and clubs in the area. A witness described what happened at one nightclub: “So the Wits management decide to impose a curfew on campus and police jump at the opportunity to implement the curfew in neighbouring suburb, #Braamfontein, where they rain down terror last night.

“People are arrested for walking on the street? Stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas are unleashed on people passing by in the streets. Off campus residences are raided and more tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets are shot indoors.

“In the midst of this … the iconic Sibongile Khumalo is busy performing at the Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein and from what I can gather, as security enter the club she begins to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ Africa [the anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle] and patrons all rise.

“She keeps singing and then ends her concert with a prayer for the #FeesMustFall movement as tear gas creeps up the stairs of the popular jazz club.

“As patrons leave, the streets have become a war zone. A truck has been set alight, another car is burning, friends who were there report harrowing screams, and police continue brutally implementing #HabibsApartheid [the Wits vice-chancellor is professor Adam Habib, a former liberal turned reactionary].”

There is more repression being unleashed. Wits administrators have imposed a 10pm curfew on the halls of residence, and sent police and security forces into the buildings, in which they terrorised students.

Arrests

Witnesses report that students are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, uncontrollable crying and nightmares from the experiences. Students arrested on or off campus are being denied bail. Some have been locked up for three weeks.

Most have been charged with arson. But chillingly, one student in Cape Town has been charged with attempted murder.

Three security guards were locked in a security office, which was set alight. Yet the security company says no students were involved. The student was also nowhere near the campus.

A second student at another university in Cape Town has been denied bail and is currently locked up in a maximum security prison.

Many commentators warn a massacre of students could be in the making — just like striking mineworkers were massacred by police four years ago in Marikana.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has announced a commission of enquiry into the issue of free education. It is due to report by next July.

But it is clear that the main item on the agenda is the further securitisation of the campuses: members of the commission include the government ministers responsible for the prisons, police, army and intelligence services.

The minister of finance, the one with the capacity to actually increase university funding, is not a member.

We do not need to wait for the commission’s findings. The police action in Braamfontein and the trumped-up charges against students show how the government is already responding.

And the message from the university administrations, police and government is chillingly clear: their violence is going to escalate.

To counter this, students organised a week of action starting on October 17, which culminated in a march to the Union Buildings in Tshwane (Pretoria) on October 20. Trade unions and other groups of organised workers have passed motions of support for the students and are discussing how they might assist.

[Reprinted from US Socialist Worker. Ashley Fataar is a South African socialist.]

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