South African students set fire to Nelson Mandela’s alma mater

The call for free education continues.
The call for free education continues.
Image: AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht
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Today Nelson Mandela’s alma mater celebrates its centenary. But a generation after Mandela walked free, his former university has become a battleground. On Wednesday evening (May 18), students frustrated by the lack of affordable accommodation, transportation, and financial aid set fire to a marquee at the University of Fort Hare and blockaded the main administration building with burning tires. Earlier on Wednesday, students picketed outside a courtroom where another group of Fort Hare students were charged with public violence in previous protests.

Since October last year, South Africa’s public universities have been the scenes of violent and emotional demonstrations, as a generation once known as the Born Frees—those born after apartheid ended in 1994—find that the country’s political liberation has not led to economic equality. Since the mass marches of the #FeesMustFall movement last year, campuses have seen sporadic demonstrations that have included arson, disrupted student elections, and nude protests.

The clarion call is free education, but students will settle for better financial aid, university housing, and safety for women. Students have also taken up the cause of support staff on campus, demanding better labor conditions for them. After failed negotiations, universities have often responded with police arrests and student suspensions. The chaos on South Africa’s campuses reflect a growing frustration with the lack of opportunity in a country where unemployment is above 25% and the economy is slipping behind its peers.

Despite calls to boycott Fort Hare’s celebrations, the university is determined to go ahead. Once known as the South African Native College, Fort Hare was founded in 1916 as the country’s first university for black people under colonialism and later apartheid. Mandela studied there from 1939 to 1940—and was himself expelled for taking part in protests. Besides him, its illustrious alumni include African artists and scientists, and politicians such as Botswana’s independence leader Seretse Khama and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who is expected to attend the May 20 centenary celebrations.

At another university, graduation celebrations may not go ahead because of student protests. In the early hours of Monday morning, the 1,000-seater sponsored auditorium of the University of Johannesburg was firebombed. The hall was gutted and the computer lab above it was damaged. Neither graduations nor exams will take place there for now.

The university responded with strong language, saying the “arsonists” who caused $6 million damage will be “brought to book.” Twelve students are already facing disciplinary action for earlier protests, and the university vowed that their hearing would continue despite the vandalism. With renewed unrest in recent days, the University of Johannesburg has hired bouncers to keep the peace on campus, fearing a repeat of public protests that saw 141 students and workers arrested last year.

For South African protesters, setting state-owned buildings ablaze seems the only way to get attention. Last year, students at the North West University set fire to some buildings, forcing the university to temporarily shut down. Earlier this month, residents angered by a municipal boundary dispute damaged and torched 26 schools in the already impoverished Limpopo province.