Johannesburg - Authorities are anxious that there is deliberate intent to collapse higher education in the country, as some universities teeter on the brink.
This is in the wake of violent protests at several universities, notably North West University’s (NWU) Mahikeng campus, where irate students torched an administration building, library and computer lab.
There are also concerns around the racially charged clashes between students at the University of Free State (UFS) and University of Pretoria (UP). This came against the backdrop of last year’s #FeesMustFall protests that swept across most universities across the country, followed by renewed protests earlier this year.
The latest upheavals at the three universities have the government and university officials as well as politicians worried.
Universities SA chairman Professor Adam Habib expressed grave concern at the violent nature of the protests, suggesting that they could be the result of a politically orchestrated plan to collapse higher education in the country.
“It appears that these violent acts are being planned and committed by groups and individuals with a singular intent to deliberately disrupt and destabilise our universities through intimidation and violence,” he said on Thursday.
Heads of institutions embroiled in violence have tried to engage students to no avail, he said.
President Jacob Zuma was among those condemning the violent protests, particularly at NWU. “The burning of university buildings at a time when we are prioritising the education of our youth is inexplicable and can never be condoned. No amount of anger should drive students to burn their own university and deny themselves and others education.
“Grievances should be handled in a peaceful manner,” he said.
The university remained closed indefinitely after the rioting students set alight the buildings on Wednesday night. This was after the university announced it would be inaugurating an interim student representative council (SRC), after last week’s dissolution of the EFF student command. EFF student command leader Linda “Benz” Mabengwane and the EFF have denied involvement in the arson.
The university was scrambling to resolve the impasse so that lectures could resume. University spokesman Koos Degenaar said: “We are looking at the quickest way to make sure things are back to normal on campus,” he said, adding that the admin block that was burnt down was not where admission and accommodation records are stored.
Degenaar said assessors were on campus to determine the extent and the cost of the damage.
Students have demanded that they be taken to the Vaal and Potchefstroom campuses to continue with their studies, but Higher Education and Training spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana said it was not that simple.
“Where do we get the spaces at the other campuses, they are already full. There are also some courses that are only offered at the Mahikeng campus and not at the other campuses,” he said.
Degenaar said the institution was looking into offering lessons online and on weekends.
Nkwanyana said it could take the rest of the semester to fix buildings because of the extensive damage. He called for Mabengwane’s arrest for inciting violence on campus. “He is a criminal and must be arrested. We are happy that the head of security who colluded with him has been suspended.”
Higher Education and Training Deputy Minister Mduduzi Manana was expected to visit the troubled campus today.
UFS has been shut down since Tuesday after students went on the rampage on Monday night and removed a statue of former president CR Swart, following violence clashes at a Varsity Cup rugby game. This was after spectators attacked protesters on the field.
The protesting students are now calling for vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen to step down.
UP has also been marred by violent protests, with students clashing over language policy. Some of the students have been calling for the scrapping of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
Meanwhile, the South African Human Rights Commission is probing racism allegations at UFS and UP. The commission is to hold hearings that will look into factors that sustain racism on campuses.