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South Africa’s student protests have become scenes of teargas, arrests, and burning buildings

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

For weeks, learning has given way to mayhem on South Africa’s university campuses. Clashes between students protesting for free education and police have become increasingly intense, marked in recent days by arrests, destruction of property, and the discovery of undetonated petrol bombs on university grounds.

The protests began last year after the government announced a mandatory fee increase at universities. Under the banner #FeesMustFall, demonstrations were relatively peaceful, and students were placated after the proposed fee increase was dropped. So when the government again announced fee increases this September (albeit capped at 8%), students were enraged. Demonstrations began to take place almost daily at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The unrest spread to other campuses, in some cases becoming violent, and a number of schools closed to avoid further confrontations. Scenes of riot police lining up against stone-throwing students have dominated the news.

In response to the protests, president Jacob Zuma established a task team of eight cabinet ministers, including police, intelligence, defense, and state security. But the task force left out the finance minister and treasury for reasons that are unclear. A government-appointed commission tasked with reviewing tuition at public universities continues with public hearings, isolated from the chaos surrounding universities.

epa05569818 Students from Wits University stand defiant against police forces during ongoing protests against the cost of higher education in Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 October 2016. Fees protests continued at universities across the country with private security companies being employed to keep order. Some eight students have been arrested this week by South African Police Services. The ministry of education announced a 8% increase of university fees following calls by student demonstrators of a 0% increase.  EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
Students on university campuses across South Africa have protested nearly daily since mid-September. (EPA/Kim Ludbrook)
A protester,  centre left, addresses fellow students outside the great hall at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. South African police have fired rubber bullets and set off stun grenades to disperse student protesters on a university campus in Johannesburg. The clash occurred Tuesday at the University of the Witwatersrand, which had announced it was re-opening after closing because of sometimes violent demonstrations for free education. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Students occupying the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Students from the University of Cape Town attend a protest in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, demanding free university education. President Jacob Zuma has said the recent protests at some South African universities have caused about $44 million in property damage and threaten to sabotage the country's system of higher education. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
Students gather at the University of Cape Town. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
epaselect epa05548843 Students from Wits University demonstrate during the second day of #Feemustfall demonstration against the announcement of fee increases at universities across the country, Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 September 2016. The ministry of education announced an eight percent increase of university fees following calls by student demonstrators of no increase. The demonstrations are set to continue.  EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
Students face off with police. (EPA/Kim Ludbrook)

On Wednesday (Oct. 12), students arrested in Johannesburg on charges ranging from public violence to assault, appeared in court under heavy guard before being released on bail. On the same day in Pretoria, police fired rubber bullets as a student march through the city center turned violent.

At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, protesters set fire to the university’s main entrance, the information center and security vehicles. The university opened a case of attempted murder after two security guards were locked inside a burning building. Nineteen other students from the Cape Peninsula University were also arrested.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Durban campus, students clashed with police, while in Pietermaritzburg students were arrested for setting fire to a building. At the Vaal University of Technology, south of Johannesburg, students allegedly threw a petrol bomb at police. The University of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth remain closed.

Students demanding free education react as they are fired at by riot police officers during a protest outside the University of the Witwatersrand at Braamfontein, in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 10,2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTSRN4H
Protests have spilled out to neighborhoods surrounding universities. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
A student (wearing a 'FEES MUST FALL' t-shirt) chats to a riot police officer as they stand guard outside Hillbrow magistrate court during an appearance of students who were arrested during a protest demanding free education at the Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko - RTSRXNP
The protests have been organized under the #FeesMustFall banner. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
A student demanding free education is seen in a police armoured vehicle after being detained during protests outside the University of the Witwatersrand at Braamfontein, in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko - RTSRN5L
Dozens of protesting students have been arrested. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande and other political leaders from the ruling African National Congress have accused the student movement of becoming politicized, in light of opposition party support for the cause. “This is no longer about fees anymore. This is about trying to cause discontent. It’s about regime change, to be quite honest,” Nzimande told news station eNCA.

Student leaders have come under increasing fire for the violent nature of the protests in some places, and their resolute demands that all fees be waived, and that campuses remain closed until an agreement is reached. Female and LGBTQI students have also accused the movement of reneging on their commitment to inclusivity in the demonstrations.

Talks between the government, university management and student leaders have yet to yield a solution, with neither side willing or able to meet the other’s demands. After nearly a month, an impasse does not appear likely to end soon, with protests only likely to become even more intense.

epa05550590 Students from Wits University run as police force fire a stun grenade during the 3rd day of #feemustfall demonstration, against fee increases at universities across the country were announced, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 21 September 2016. The ministry of education announced an eight per cent increase of university fees following calls by student demonstrators demanding zero per cent increase. The demonstrations are set to continue.  EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
Protests began in September. (EPA/Kim Ludbrook)
epa05569718 Police forces shoot at feeling Wits students during a battle on the campus as ongoing protests continue against the cost of higher education in Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 October 2016. Fees protests continued at universities across the country with private security companies being employed to keep order. Some eight students have been arrested this week by South African Police Services. The ministry of education announced a 8% increase of university fees following calls by student demonstrators of a 0% increase.  EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
Campuses have become battlegrounds. (EPA/Kim Ludbrook)

Read this next: Protests on South Africa’s university campuses aren’t going away anytime soon, nor should they.

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