Police struggle to contain protesting students

Ten students were arrested on various charges at the Bloemfontein campus of the University of the Free State after a group took part in a “disruptive march”, Free State police said on Thursday.

Captain Chaka Marope said police had “a hard time” on Wednesday night, until early on Thursday morning, containing the situation after a protest turned to rioting at the campus. “About 400 students took to the street and went on a rampage at the campus.”

Marope said the students were burning tyres and throwing stones at university buildings.

Police said it seemed that the disgruntled students were protesting against a new integration policy to be implemented at the university. The students voiced their dissatisfaction that the policy was formulated without any consultation between the university management and the students.

Police arrested 10 students aged between 22 and 30: six on charges of public violence, two for malicious damage to property and another two for crimen injuria. They are expected to appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court soon.

A local newspaper reported on Thursday that house committee members from most of the residences on campus had been camping on the lawn in front of the main building on campus—for the past two days—in protest.

It was reported that they handed over a list of problems to the university management to be addressed and were waiting for feedback.

Wouter Wessels, the leader for the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) Kovsies, said the protest and strike were not politically motivated, which meant students were unhappy and not being influenced by political parties. “It is evident that the unhappiness at the UFS was not just coming from the FF+,” he said in a statement.

Wessels said house committees were the hands and feet of the university management, but the situation on campus made it hard for house committees to do their work properly. “The university management makes decisions and institutes policy without consulting student leaders,” he said.

Dulandi van Heerden, chairperson of the Democratic Alliance on campus, agreed that the situation on campus could be attributed to the management ignoring students’ problems.

“The university should stop making decisions without proper consultation with students and to force the decisions down on students,” she said, adding that students were—up to now—not taken seriously by the management.

Committed

In reaction, the university said it remains committed to its policy of increasing diversity in campus residences despite the rioting. University spokesperson Anton Fisher said management is committed to engaging with students on the matter of diversity.

“In fact, several meetings have taken place over the past few weeks with the student representative council about student issues,” he said in a statement.

Fisher said the management is “extremely concerned” about the actions of some of the students who committed public violence and damaged property on Wednesday night. “We are concerned about what appears to be an orchestrated campaign to frustrate the implementation of the new residence policy on diversity.”

He said the university wants to ensure a safe campus for staff and students and will take the necessary legal steps to avoid a repeat of the incidents.

On Thursday, normal academic and other activities were continuing.

Fisher said the management noted the contents of a memorandum that was handed to it by house committee members regarding integration at student residences, and urged student leaders to follow the established channels to address their concerns.

“These channels have been successful in the past in addressing student concerns and we see no reason why they cannot succeed in the current situation,” he added.

Fischer said a meeting with student leaders will soon be held. “However, we want to reiterate that criminal behaviour and misconduct will not be tolerated.”—Sapa

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