Open door leads to race clash

May 19, 1995

Thirteen students and a policeman were injured during race riots at South Africa's Vaal Technikon in the latest of a wave of trouble between black and white students at technikons around the country.

Race clashes over the past two months have occurred mainly at formerly white, conservative technikons, which began enrolling significant numbers of black students relatively recently.

About 200 policemen used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the armed and rioting students on the technikon's Vanderbijlpark campus outside Johannesburg last week. Two of the students were seriously hurt, cars were stoned, tyres slashed, windows broken and technikon property damaged.

The trouble at Vaal Technikon began when black students called for a response to demands which included the resignation of the technikon council, its rector Peter du Plessis - who has since left - and for campus transformation to be speeded up.

The department of education sent a delegate to ease tension, but when he told students to return to class they shouted him down, marched out of the meeting and started demonstrating. Technikon spokesman, Sugen John Nair, said the violence between students began when white students who wanted to attend lectures were provoked by protesting black students.

There has been trouble at several other technikon campuses. In March, months of racial tension at the Free State Technikon erupted into a bloody fight between hundreds of black and white students. At least seven students were injured and several were arrested.

Natal Technikon in Durban was closed for two weeks last month when rampaging black students - who were demanding the resignation of the technikon council and protesting against fee increases - trashed a boardroom, overturned rubbish bins and uprooted plants. There were clashes between black and white students.

A few weeks earlier at the technikon's city campus, protesting students at a bridging college leasing technikon premises barricaded the building and taunted white students, some of whom said they feared for their lives. There has also been trouble at several colleges.

Student protests are a relatively new experience for formerly white technikons, which were far slower than universities to open their doors to black students, adapt to institutional changes demanded in the new South Africa, and make their governing bodies more representative.

One problem is that technikon change is occurring at a time when student organisations, which are dominated by black students, are more volatile, politicised and organised than they were in the mid-1980s. Racial tension at technikons is probably also exacerbated by the fact that white technikon students and staff tend to be more conservatively minded than their university colleagues.

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