Violence rocks South Africa

June 28, 1996

Student unrest has hit nearly a third of South Africa's 35 universities and technikons in the past two months in what many people believe has been a combination of student organisations flexing their muscles, opposition to proposed reforms and institutional sluggishness to change.

Protests, several of them violent, occurred at the universities of Durban Westville, Zululand, Natal, Western Cape, Vista and the North, technikons of Pretoria, Natal, South Africa and ML Sultan, and Johannesburg College of Education.

Worst hit were Technikon Pretoria, where there were running battles between black and white students, and the University of Durban-Westville, which was closed for several weeks after a revolt against management by some students and staff. Several students were injured on both campuses.

Sibusiso Bengu, the education minister has met student organisations. The government concedes that there are genuine grievances, but has told students it will not tolerate violence, looting or trashing on any campus.

Professor Bengu's spokesman, Lincoln Mali, said common features included lack of negotiations between students and management, racial clashes, issues of funding and polarised student bodies.

Although students say the protests have been in response to intolerable circumstances in individual institutions, some people believe they are a strategy by student organisations to test their constituencies.

The ANC-aligned South African Students' Congress supported a call by President Mandela for an end to bad behaviour, blaming violence on small numbers of racist students, and suggested a code of conduct be applied.

Its education officer, Stephanie Allias, rejected the idea of a national programme coordinating student resistance and said the sector was experiencing sporadic campaigns over issues such as slow transformation, bursary shortages, financial exclusions and curricula.

She did, however, concede a link between protests and reforms proposed by the National Commission on Higher Education. "If the commission continues to exclude important stakeholders, and disregard submissions which conflict with particular partisan interests represented by the commission, we will consider national mass action to protest," she said.

Sasco president, David Makhura, called on Professor Bengu to convene a national summit to discuss "the simmering crisis in higher education". The organisation also called on all students to participate in a national day of action on July 31.

Financial problems have been at the heart of some of the protests. At several institutions, students have been told they cannot take mid-year examinations because they have not paid their fees. Despite a new student financial aid scheme, many students are victims of bureaucratic inefficiency.

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