24 October 2017

South Africa: Tension and Violence At UFS

Last week student leaders at the University of the Free State (UFS) handed over a memorandum to university management listing a number of concerns including the proposed 8% tuition hike and demanding the postponement of the end of year exams and uncapped WiFi for all UFS students. As another week of the #UFSshutdown unfolds, ANATHI NYADU and THABO TWALA report on the situation.

A cloud of uncertainty is currently hanging over the UFS campus. Last Wednesday, a group of students staged a protest over fee increments for 2018. Over the weekend 36 students at the Bloemfontein campus were arrested following violent clashes between students and the police. At least four pregnant students were arrested. Those arrested allege they were assaulted and harassed by the police and private security as protests around the university campus continued.

There was concern when a student released a fire extinguisher on a senior academic in one of the classes. This led to his hospitalisation.

President Zuma is yet to release the fees commission report, which will outline the feasibility of free higher education in the country. Zuma received the report in August 2017 and has not released it as yet. The Citizen reported on Monday that the The National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union is demanding that Zuma "immediately" release the fees commission report and that "Students are getting agitated, and we have already seen sporadic violence in institutions like the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of Free State".

At UFS last Thursday, students handed over their memorandum to university management and disrupted a number of spaces on campus including computer labs, the university library and exam venues.

Protesting students were met with private security and the South African Police Services (SAPS) who brandishing batons and shields. As students moved from one venue to another, singing protest songs and holding placards, SAPS warned them that they had only five minutes in which to disperse. As the crowd began to disperse the police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets, arresting over 30 students shortly after.

It is alleged the police also entered residences in search of protesting students. The arrested students were all released on Sunday morning. On Monday morning they appeared in court and their case has been postponed to February 2018.

Private Security and victimisation

In a meeting over the weekend students raised concerns about the levels of violence used by SAPS and private security. There was further outcry about private security guards not having name tags and therefore not being identifiable as well as private security searching female residences and enering female ablution facilities. The Student Representative Council (SRC) has asked all those who have fallen victims to the heavy-handedness of private security personell to put their complaints in writing in order to for the SRC to lay criminal charges against the private security company.

In addition to the arrests, the university has suspended one of the protesting students, Bongani Mazula, and banned many others from entering campus.

One of the main demands made by student is that the exam timetable should be postponed by a week to give students enough time to prepare. However, the university is adamant that exams will continue as planned. The SRC has asked students traumatised by events last week to come forward if they feel unable to write their exams.

Ntakuseni Razwiedani (26) a masters student says the protests have resulted in "qualitative gains in the quest for free education." She says the establishment of the presidential commission was a "huge step in centralising free education as part of government's youth agenda and student protests have yielded positive outcomes for the most vulnerable segments of the student population." However it is not immediately clear whether the university will meet all the demands put forward by the students.

"We live by hope. There's what we call in my language 'I themba ali' bulali' - Hope doesn't kill anyone," says Yanga Gexu (23) a Governance and Political Transformation student, "Especially as disadvantaged people, downtrodden people that's what keeps us moving."

In a desperate move by management to make sure that the protests do not continue on Monday, the university has sent out an email stating that students who are seen taking part in protests will be provisionally deregistered.

However the university has also indicated that students who 'feel traumatised' by the protests last week and who are not 'fit to write exams' will be given a chance to write at a later date. The university is also providing optional counselling and debriefing sessions to affected students, medical assistance has also been offered to those students 'particularly affects by the events [of last week]'.

The university has insisted that the exam timetable go ahead as planned and that adequate provision has been made for students affected by the protest. In the meantime, there is heavy SAPS and private security presence around the Bloemfontein campus.

Anathi is a third year journalism student at the University of the Free State. He was born in the Eastern Cape and grew up in Northern Cape. He is interested in politics, history art and literature. He is an aspirant poet and short story writer who believes that books and stories will change this world. He writes for online platforms such as Y-not Culture, Fundza Literacy Trust and various other online platforms.

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