In what seems like it will be a repeat of the struggle of the miners of 2012, now students in South Africa are rising up. Ashley Fataar reports from South Africa:
Since last month students at universities across South Africa have been protesting for the complete removal of university fees for poor students. They are pushing for the realisation of the demands raised by the #FeesMust Fall campaign last October, the largest wave of protests to sweep the country since the fall of apartheid which saw tens of thousands of students take to the streets. Currently universities in six provinces are witnessing protests.
The protests erupted when Blade Nzimande, the government Minister responsible for universities, announced that it would be left to individual universities to determine fee increases for 2017. Students were hoping for at least no increases. Had that been the case then the protests might not have erupted.
The students responded by organising mass meetings on campuses to decide on the way forward. They had a series of sit-ins, meetings and disruption of lectures. Barricades were also erected at some campuses.
But the response from university managements and police this time around has been vicious. They are determined that there will be no re-run of last year’s #FeesMust Fall campaign which caught them flat-footed. Faced with the re-emergence of campus protest, university managers called in private security companies or the police to disrupt the meetings and to ensure that they did not go ahead.
One of the private security corporations is Vetus Schola. It employs former special operations soldiers of the apartheid military. They identified and hunted anti-apartheid activists and murdered them in the 1980s. Vetus Schola security thugs also unleashed a
reign of terror in a mining community during a workers strike some years ago. Already a student has been shot through the thigh in Johannesburg allegedly by a private security guard.
The police for their part have used tear-gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. The police also use body armour and wave guns loaded with live ammunition.
More worryingly, soldiers were deployed onto the campus of the University of the Free State to “assist” police. They use automatic rifles. The mainstream media has not reported on this.
The Battle of Braamfontein
Students at the University of the Witwatersrand in central Johannesburg tried to use the university’s main hall for a meeting. But police nyalas (armoured cars) and a water cannon truck charged at the students. Heavily armed police liberally threw stun grenades into the crowd and opened fire with rubber bullets. Tear-gas was also fired into university lecture rooms to clear buildings.
A number of university workers who were not part of the protest at the time were severely injured by the bullets, burned by the grenades or had breathing problems because of tear-gas also being used.
Faced with such a situation, the students took their protest outside the gates of campus and into the surrounding area of Braamfontein.
Bystanders who were shocked at the police response sympathised with the students and joined in the protests.
Community joins in
But other people also joined in. Poor and homeless people smashed shop windows and grabbed what they could – especially clothing. The mainstream media called them “criminal elements”.
The police followed hours later. The following night they unleashed a reign of terror on student residences and night clubs in the area.
A witness describes happened at a night club:
“So the Wits Management decide to impose a curfew on campus and police jump at the opportunity to implement the curfew in neighbouring suburb, #Braamfontein where they rain down terror last night. People are arrested for walking on the street? Stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas are unleashed on people passing by in the streets. Off campus residences are raided and more tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets are shot indoors.
“In the midst of this… the iconic Sibongile Khumalo is busy performing at the Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein and from what I can gather, as security enter the club she begins to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ Africa [the anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle] and patrons all rise. She keeps singing and then ends her concert with a prayer for the #FeesMustFall movement as teargas creeps up the stairs of the popular jazz club.
As patrons leave, the streets have become a war zone. A truck has been set alight, another car is burning, friends who were there report harrowing screams, and police continue brutally implementing #HabibsApartheid [the Wits VC is Professor Adam Habib, a former liberal turned reactionary].”
Police and security forces have been raiding Wits halls of residence between 11pm and 4am. Witnesses report that six days later students are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, uncontrollable crying and nightmares from the experiences.
But there is more repression being used. Students are being denied bail and kept imprisoned. Some have been locked up for three weeks.
Most have been charged with arson. But, chillingly, one student in Cape Town has been charged with attempted murder. Three security guards were locked in a security office which was set alight. Yet the security company says no students were involved. The student was also nowhere near the campus. A second student at another university in Cape Town has been denied bail and is currently locked up in a maximum security prison.
A massacre on the way?
Many commentators point to a massacre of students in the making – just like striking mineworkers were massacred by police four years ago in Marikana. The President, Jacob Zuma, has just announced a commission of enquiry to look into the issue of free education. But it’s clear the main item on the agenda is the further securitisation of the campuses: members of the commission include the government ministers responsible for the prisons, police, army and intelligence services. We don’t need to wait for the commission’s findings: the police action in Braamfontein and the trumped-up charges against students show how the government is already responding.
Either way, the message from the university administrations, police and government is chillingly clear. The repression is going to become much worse.
In order to counter this, trade unions and other groups of organised workers show sign that they are beginning to plan organised resistance in unity with the students.
Editor’s Note: Since receiving this article, we have read the following article, which reports on campus workers joining the students’ struggle: