South African police fired stun grenades at students who lit fires outside President Jacob Zuma’s offices following a week of protests, the first signs of the post-apartheid ‘Born Free’ generation flexing its muscle.
Protesters chant slogans as they burn portaloos during a protest outside the presidency. [Reuters]
Students protesting against fee increases hurled stones at police guarding the Union Buildings ahead of an address by Zuma. A few pushed through a cordon before being pushed back by anti-riot police who also used water canons to douse the fires.
The protest caps a week of angry demonstrations over the cost of university education – prohibitive for many blacks – amid frustration at the inequalities that persist two decades after the end of white-minority rule.
But low growth since a 2009 recession has forced the government to keep a lid on spending, meaning that it has little spare cash to offer students in the form of enhanced subsidies.
“He’s not taking us seriously, we’ve been here for a while,” one student said on television.
The students danced, singing: “We the students dream of free education. We are not afraid of the police, our fight will win.”
Zuma was meeting in private with student leaders and university management, the presidency said in a statement.
“The meeting will discuss the current countrywide impasse between universities and students regarding the proposed annual fee increments,” the presidency said.
Tuition fees vary across universities, but can run as high as 60,000 rand ($4,500) per year for medical students in a country where white households still earn six times more than black households, according to official figures.
Protests – some of them violent – have broken out at universities across the country this week, taking the ruling African National Congress (ANC) by surprise.
On Wednesday, riot police threw stun grenades at students who stormed the parliament precinct in Cape Town as Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered his interim budget in which he painted a gloomy outlook for Africa’s most advanced economy.
“Education mustn’t be free but it must be affordable,” Makungu Sithole, 21, an engineering student at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) said at the Union buildings grounds on Friday.
“The ANC just talks, we support the ANC but we just don’t support the current cabinet. Today is Zuma’s day to shine. The children are making a plea, you should listen.”
South Africa has a million students in further education, a figure that the ANC wants to increase to 1.5 million by 2030.
Universities say they need higher fees to keep up standards and they urged the government to find the extra money. The government, which subsidises universities, said it could not afford the free education that students are demanding.
Thousands of students from Wits and the University of Johannesburg marched through South Africa’s commercial capital on Thursday to Luthuli House, the headquarters of the ANC, where they handed a list of demands to officials.
On Friday, Africa’s top-rated university, the University of Cape Town, said it had postponed the start of final exams due from October.