'Chaos' at Wits during student protests

Protesting students stormed into lecture theatres at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on Wednesday, disrupting classes and chasing away lecturers.

“We have called police back to campus in a bid to have order restored,” management spokesperson Shirona Patel said in mid-afternoon.

She said disgruntled students went on the rampage shortly after talks in a bid to resolve their grievances failed.

The Young Communist League said there was chaos after police fired rubber bullets.

 

“As I am speaking to you there is chaos at Wits ... there was a peaceful march until management brought police to disrupt the march—instead of police making sure it was peaceful, they started shooting at students,” said spokesperson Castro Ngobese.

 

Patel confirmed that rubber bullets were fired by police as warning shots when police asked the students to disperse and they refused.

 

Police spokesperson Captain Cheryl Engelbrecht could not confirm that shots had been fired but said she had heard that arrests had been made.

Kay, a 23-year-old student, told the Mail & Guardian Online she was present during the protest when police opened fire with rubber bullets.

“The students were marching towards where the buses are parked. Some students were trying to leave on the buses to go to residence. Those marching blocked off the road and did not allow them to leave and started chanting.

“It was a big mob that was blocking the road and not allowing anyone to leave. The police came and the shot at the mob with rubber bullets. One student was taken away [by the police]. It was Mbali Hlope, the Student Representative Council [SRC] president.”

SRC communications officer Irshaad Vawda said: “The campus brought in the South African Police Service, and they fired on students twice without any warning. It is illegal to bring firearms and police on to campus and it is illegal to shoot without any prior warning.

“The police did not give any warning at all. This was a legal protest. A number of students were taken away, including Hlope.”

Students were protesting against increases in the upfront fee payment they have to make, and against students having to pay for their own accommodation.

They demanded no increase for 2008 and were against the privatisation of student accommodation.

Almost 500 students started protesting on Wednesday morning on the East and West campuses,

Chennel Jagesur, a second year Actuarial Science student who had her lectures disrupted, described their actions as “petrifying”.

“We were sitting in our lecture room, waiting to write a test which had been scheduled for 4pm, when about 70 to 80 students entered carrying sticks, and began jumping on the desks,” said Jagesur.

Jagesur said her lecturer tried to stop the protesting students, but was pushed aside.

“Some protesters were singing and chanting, while the others rubbed off information that was written on the black board,” Jagesur said.

“It was an extremely frightening experience.”

Jagesur said that there were no police patrolling the campus at the time of the incident.

‘They cannot do this to us’

Kagiso Malema, a protesting a second-year BSC, urged the university to re-think fee increases for next year, as he would not be able to manage the payments.

“They cannot do this to us, some of us are not here on bursaries and we are already battling to pay fees for this year,” Malema said.

“I already have to pay R17 000 for this year, and now a further upfront payment of R5 500 in 2008. If I do not pay it by April, then interest is added.

“I really don’t know how I am going to manage,” Malema said.

Registrar Derek Swemmer said the up-front fee increases were on the recommendation of the university’s financial experts.

“Council determined several years ago that the university should seek to obtain one third of student fees in the form of an upfront payment each year.

“This contribution would reduce the annual need for overdraft facilities to bridge operational costs until receipt of the first tranche of the state subsidy is received on April 1 each year.

“Repeated concessions to students over the years have meant that upfront payments contribute significantly less than the desired amount. Council determined that the upfront payment for 2008 should not exceed R5 500,” Swemmer said.

According to Swemmer, the figure was fixed two months ago in order to give students the maximum amount of time to make appropriate financial provisions.

He said that the demanded 0% increase by the Student Representative Council was unrealistic.

Swemmer said that in terms of students paying for their residence, the percentage of beds relative to the total student population had diminished in recent years.

This was due to an increase of students from 20 000 to 25 000 students.

He said that due to the shortage, a decision was taken to develop Parktown Village II (PKV II), and in the process create 650 beds over a three-year period.

“Students placed in this accommodation and in the rest of PKV II will be individuals who are able and willing to pay their own way,” Swemmer said.

While protests continued at the university, police spokesperson Captain Cheryl Engelbrecht said they were monitoring the situation and no violence had erupted during the course of the protests.

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