When thousands of students took to the streets a few months ago in protest against increases in university fees, many South Africans were sympathetic to their campaign.
Students of all races were seen holding hands in marches throughout the country, including those to the Union Buildings and parliament. Many saluted the students for exercising their right to demonstrate within the confines of the law and for their eloquent defiance and courage in fighting an unjust education system in which high fees lead to the academic exclusion of thousands of young South Africans from poor backgrounds.
With many citizens feeling the effect of a faltering economy, and the wealth gap between the rich and the poor widening, it is incontestable that university fees remain unaffordable. The current economic climate has made it difficult for citizens, with many battling to feed their families. Coupled with escalating food, fuel and electricity prices, high tertiary fees hurt the poor most.
Government caved in to the students and announced a zero percent fee hike for 2016. But stability has never returned to our troubled institutions of higher learning since government capitulated to the students’ demand. We have witnessed with horror a criminal element hijacking the students legitimate campaign, which now includes free tertiary education, to bring universities to a complete halt.
Many thugs, some of who are not even students, have infiltrated campuses to unleash mayhem. Lectures at Tshwane University of Technology were suspended after violent protests led by the EFF’s Student Command during which workers demanded permanent employment on a minimum wage of R10 000 across the board.
Last week, hooligans at the University of Cape Town petrol-bombed the vice-chancellor’s office and a university bus. They went on to loot what they called colonial artworks including paintings by a celebrated black artist. Another mob of thugs masquerading as students torched a bus at Wits University.
Now a few other universities have shut down because of a new wave of protests some of which have taken a racial turn. Two of these are the University of the Free State (UFS) and University of Pretoria (UP). At UFS, students went on the rampage and vandalised two men’s hostels. A video has surfaced showing rugby players and supporters assaulting protesters who went onto the field, disrupting a Varsity Cup rugby match.
At UP, classes have also been suspended amid protests over the institution’s language policy. Surely the lawlessness and destruction of property that accompanied some protests at universities has betrayed a legitimate cause.
Government, university management and student leaders need to take decisive steps to avoid the hijacking of universities by criminals. Authorities need to intervene urgently to stop the anarchists whose agenda has nothing to do with the plight of poor students. They should not be allowed to deny other students their right to access education.
Government cannot sit idly by and allow a bunch of thugs pursuing an unsavoury agenda to hold university campuses to ransom. Enough is enough.