JOHANNESBURG — Tear gas billowed and stun grenades exploded today as South African police pushed back students who had massed near the steps of Parliament to protest university tuition hikes amid some of the biggest student demonstrations since white minority rule ended in 1994.
The violence in Cape Town erupted after students shoved their way through a Parliament gate and scuffled with riot police, tossing water bottles and pushing up against the plastic shields of officers. Earlier, security guards inside Parliament forcibly removed a group of opposition lawmakers from the floor after the legislators, who are sympathetic to the students, disrupted debate by chanting: “Fees must fall!”
Student protests against apartheid were much bigger and were sometimes met with deadly force by the government, notably in the bloody crackdown on a 1976 uprising started by thousands of high school students in the Soweto area of Johannesburg. Yet the spectacle of furious students sparring with police in democratic South Africa was bound to sharpen tensions between a growing national student movement on the one hand, and university administrations and the African National Congress-led government on the other.
The protest at Parliament was part of a wave of nationwide demonstrations today at South African universities, whose managers say they are struggling with higher operational costs as well as inadequate state subsidies.
Police also used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrating students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the city of Port Elizabeth, as well as the University of Limpopo in Polokwane, South African media reported.
News channel eNCA posted video on its website that showed police clearing a road blocked by students in Port Elizabeth. Protesters in Polokwane forced some students to stop taking exams, reported News24, a South African news outlet.
Students also marched in Pretoria, Johannesburg and other cities.
The protests began last week at the University of the Witwatersrand, also known as Wits, in Johannesburg. After several days of demonstrations, it dropped plans for a proposed 10.5 per cent tuition hike next year, and has suspended activities for the rest of this week because of the disruption. Other universities, including the University of Cape Town, have also stopped operations as exams loom for many students.
Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, this week proposed a six percent limit on tuition fee increases next year, but student leaders rejected the proposal and said they would continue protests.
Some South African leaders have said the country’s education system is still trying to overcome the legacy of a system of racist rule that favoured the white minority while denying basic rights and opportunities for the black majority. However, critics also allege the government is not doing enough to subsidize the university education of its youth, many of whom struggle to pay for school.
“Student fees need to be affordable to allow for greater access to the poor, poor working class and even middle class families,” Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said at an education forum last week.
The average tuition fee for a first-year undergraduate student studying humanities at Wits, a top South African university, is between US$2,200 and US$3,200 this year, according to the university. Students who register for the first time also make a one-time payment of US$730. The cost of textbooks and accommodation adds to the financial burden of university enrollment. These fees are difficult for many students and their families to meet.
“The government must do something to help us deal with this,” a student protester told eNCA outside Parliament.