/ 22 August 2023

Protesters set building alight at University of KwaZulu-Natal

University of KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Supplied

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has opened a case of public violence after its William O’Brien building on the Pietermaritzburg campus was set on fire in a suspected arson attack on Monday night. 

The attack follows the return of students to campuses on Monday after a week’s shift to online teaching due to protests against the new National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) direct payment system. 

While most of the university’s campuses resumed regular contact teaching and learning without any issues, disruptions remained at the Pietermaritzburg campus, Normah Zondo, the executive director for corporate relations at UKZN, said on Tuesday.

On Monday, the campus faced interruptions “characterised by disruptions of lectures, intimidation of students and staff and clashes between protestors and security personnel on campus”, Zondo said.

Protests reached a crescendo when the William O’Brien examination hall was set alight. Attempts to extinguish the fire lasted seven hours, with firefighters battling the blazes until 4am on Tuesday.

“We are cooperating with law enforcement agencies to ensure that those responsible for these heinous acts are held accountable,” Zondo said, adding that the university would not hesitate to instigate internal proceedings against anyone “where there is evidence of their involvement in acts of violence, intimidation and destruction of property”.

Law enforcement agencies continue to monitor the campus. 

“We condemn these criminal and savage actions at the university,” Zondo said, reiterating a previous comment that “violence is completely antithetical to our academic mission”. 

“There is no justification for the destruction of university assets and infrastructure intended to serve future generations.”

She said issues concerning NSFAS were “outside the jurisdiction” of the university but it was participating in ongoing dialogue with the student leadership and stakeholders.

“However, we will not succumb to pressure from those seeking to undermine the functioning of the university,” Zondo added.

Students nationwide have resorted to group action about suspended and delayed payments by NSFAS. This prompted the financial aid scheme to encourage the thousands of students who have had bursary funding problems to accredit themselves on its system to avoid “ghost payments”.

NSFAS board chairperson Ernest Khosa said on 7 August it was vital for students to confirm their identity and accreditation with the scheme to avoid the ghost payments, which had led to R5.2 billion funding being paid out fraudulently.