On Thursday, University of Witwatersrand and University of Johannesburg students filled the Johannesburg streets outside the African National Congress's headquarters as they continue to demand no fee increases at varsities in 2016. Today, they will march on the Union Buildings. By BHEKI SIMELANE and GREG NICOLSON.
The police have been accommodating to University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) students’ protests in recent days but on Thursday they drew the line. When University of Johannesburg (UJ) students finally joined the fray and wanted to march to the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Luthuli House a line of South African Police Service and metro cops blocked off Nelson Mandela Bridge, with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at the ready. The tense standoff ended when students decided to march back to UJ.
After a brisk march to UJ, students were blocked from entering the Kingsway campus. They were denied entry at the main gate by over a dozen beefy Fidelity security guards who formed a scrum to keep the gate closed. Upon realising that trying to convince security to allow them in wouldn’t work, students tried to gain entry by other means. Some scaled the fences. One student tried to break the gate’s padlock using the four legs of a chair but the legs simply bent.
A fierce verbal and physical fight ensued. Students and security guards began to throw stones over the fence at each other, leading students to run through the UJ car park. A window of the reception office was smashed. While everyone was ducking away from the stones coming from all directions, the gates were suddenly flung open. Students filed into the campus but their hard-fought win was short-lived.
The muscular security guards formed a human shield at the top of the overhead bridge to prevent students from accessing the campus where hundreds of others were waiting. The students decided to push back, forcing security to retreat into the campus. The scuffle lasted an hour-and-a-half. Students, mostly male, would on occasion manage to overpower the guards, allowing a number of them to rush through before the guards recovered.
Apart from the commotion at the Kingsway campus’s main entrance, students were well behaved. Once the obstacle of getting into their own university was gone, they simply milled inside about and sang.
However, a group of students who attempted a sit-in at Luthuli House on Thursday were pepper-sprayed, and there were reports that students faced tear gas and rubber bullets while trying to occupy a road near UJ in Auckland Park in the afternoon.
Speaking of the brutality students have suffered at the hands of police and other security forces, incoming Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa said students were surprised and shocked at the police reaction to their peaceful protests.
“Sisters and brothers we have had police shoot at us, we’ve had them them tear gas us. We are being brutalised by the police. Private security companies shoot at us. This is the beginning. We are here, we are young and alive and prepared on cold the floors,” she said.
While students were gathering and arguing over who could speak at UJ – SRC elections were supposed to be taking place – others from the university and Wits had already started making their way to Luthuli House, and were eventually allowed by police to proceed.
“The youth of 1976 took charge and we should do the same. Make no mistake by thinking this is a political march. This is a united march as you can see we we are in cahoots with other parties. Police must leave us alone. This is no police march,” said one student.
Thousands of people filled the street outside Luthuli House in support of students’ core demands – no fee increases at universities in 2016, free education and an end to outsourcing staff at varsities. “We are not lost. It was our intention to come here. This is where [Wits vice-chancellor] Adam Habib was appointed. This is where provisions in the Freedom Charter are inscribed on the walls. We are also here to remind the ANC of its 2012 resolution to implement free education. The ANC government will never provide free education. We must take it,” said Dlamini.
The ANC’s truck-cum-stage was parked on the street and secretary-general Gwede Mantashe looked on with Congress of South African Trade Unions president Sdumo Dlamini and Security Minister David Mahlobo as the party’s record on the affordability of education was criticised by its own young leaders and Vuyani Pambo from the Wits Economic Freedom Fighters. Mantashe wanted to speak from the truck but the students pressured him to come into the crowd to receive their memorandum.
Like many political parties, civil society groups and academics, Mantashe has expressed support for the movement and criticised the management of universities. On Thursday the ANC met with the ANC Youth League, South African Students Congress, Young Communist League, and Congress of South African Students, which together form the Progressive Youth Alliance, and agreed to raise their demands with the government.
Habib also said he supports the students on Thursday, but put the onus on the government. “The chairperson of council and I, together with other vice-chancellors and chairs of council, and student leaders will be meeting with the president tomorrow. We will voice support for the students’ struggle and their demands. We hope in this meeting to reach a decisive agreement that will see an immediate resolution to the short-term crisis, and a substantive plan to resolve the long-term challenge of underfunding for higher education,” he said in a statement.
While tertiary education stakeholders are meeting with President Jacob Zuma on Friday, students will march to the Union Buildings. DM
Main photo: Wits EFF leader Vuyani Pambo, with the microphone, is flanked by incoming SRC president from the PYA Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and former PYA SRC president Mcebo Dlamini outside Luthuli House. (Greg Nicolson)