CAPE TOWN (AFP) - South African riot police used stun grenades to disperse protesting students outside parliament in Cape Town on Wednesday, as demonstrations against rising university fees rocked campuses around the country.
Hundreds of students forced their way through the gates of the parliament complex and gathered at the entrance of the national assembly building, scuffling with police who struggled to force them back.
Universities in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and other cities have halted lectures during several days of protests against fee increases that many students say will drive poor blacks further out of the education system.
Protesters kicked police shields and threw bottles during running battles outside parliament, with police repeatedly using stun grenades to try to control the angry crowds.
Students sang popular protest songs and anti-apartheid slogans, and demanded to speak to Minister of Education Blade Nzimande, chanting “We want Blade, we want Blade”.
University protests have erupted regularly this year as students vent their anger over the limited racial transformation in education since the end of racist white-minority rule with Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994.
“In 1994, they were promised free education and nothing has been done,” University of Cape Town (UCT) student Judd Kron told AFP.
“This is not about race, it’s not about political affiliation, it’s about giving people the education they deserve.” Inside parliament on Wednesday, lawmakers from the radical opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party delayed Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s mid-term budget speech by chanting “Fees must fall”.
The EFF, who wear red overalls as their uniform, were forced out of the chamber by security staff before Nene delivered his address.
“It needs to be said that disruption of learning is not constructive, neither is disruption of parliament,” said Nene, adding that the government was determined to tackle the issue of university funding.
After the speech, which was attended by President Jacob Zuma, the speaker told lawmakers to wait in their offices due to the violence outside.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, called for Zuma to “address the students because this requires leadership”.
“If we fail to do that, there will be an even bigger crisis on our head,” he told lawmakers.
University officials have been in talks with student leaders over implementation of the fee rises, which they say are necessary to strengthen weak education standards.
The government has proposed that annual fee increases are capped at 6 per cent.
Tuition fees at Wits university in Johannesburg range from 29,620 rand (S$3,058) a year for a Bachelor of Arts degree and 58,140 rand per year for a medicine degree, excluding accommodation and textbooks.
Fee increases differ from one institution to the other.
On Tuesday, police arrested 23 people at UCT who were accused of breaking a court order banning students from disrupting activities on campus. They will appear in court on Friday.
Port Elizabeth, in the south-east of the country, was another of the cities hit by student unrest on Wednesday.
“This morning we had to fire stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse a group of students who had blocked a public road,” Miranda Mills, the city’s police spokeswoman, said.
Elsewhere, Students at Stellenbosch University outside Cape Town have been lobbying for weeks for more classes to be taught in English rather than Afrikaans, the language of the former apartheid regime.
At UCT, students in March led a high-profile and successful campaign for the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus.