South Africa’s leaders are attempting to calm the violence that has rocked the country’s universities, as continuing protests imperil the future of this academic year.
President Jacob Zuma announced on 11 October that he had tasked a team of ministers with “normalising” the situation on campuses, calling on students who are campaigning for the abolition of tuition fees to “return to class while solutions are collectively sought to the challenges of higher education in the country”.
Demonstrations have continued to focus on the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at stone-throwing students on 10 October. Classes were continuing at Wits, but with “low numbers” of students attending, the university said.
Other campuses have been affected by the violence too, with the universities of Cape Town and Pretoria among those suspending classes.
Sector leaders have warned that, if classes cannot get under way again soon, the current academic year may have to be suspended, leaving students unable to take up jobs and universities unable to admit new cohorts to replace them in 2017.
Max Price, Cape Town’s vice-chancellor, said that the country’s higher education sector faced “a backlog and a potential lost generation”, adding that it was unclear how academics’ salaries could be funded in such a situation.
The latest protests were triggered by the government’s announcement that universities would be allowed to increase their tuition fees by up to 8 per cent in 2017, despite ministers’ pledge to cover the cost of the rise for students from low and middle-income families.
Mr Zuma’s task force includes Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, as well as the ministers for police, state security and defence.
But the opposition Democratic Alliance said that it was “baffling” that the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, had not been included in the group, saying that fee increases and unrest would continue if the government did not find more funding for higher education.