Pretoria - Tension flared on the campus of the University of Pretoria on Monday over the use of Afrikaans and the situation deteriorated into a clash between black students and their Afrikaner counterparts.
In yet another day filled with drama, white students stood their ground and declared they would no longer watch and do nothing while their language was being attacked.
The protesters, under the #AfrikaansMustFall banner, are demanding the total removal of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at the university. The campaign was initiated by the EFF student command last week.
Indications of the extraordinary day to come were evident early on when videos and pictures started circulating on social media platforms of students being ordered out of classes.
They first headed to the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court to support the 24 students arrested last Friday.
However, on returning to the campus they were met with a human wall of Afrikaans students, who blocked passages leading up to the university’s amphitheatre where the protesters were to gather.
The white students said they were tired of having their rights trampled on by the protesting students, and that they too had a right to be taught in their language of preference.
Arms locked and shoulder to shoulder, they said they were fed-up with being discriminated against.
They had decided to also stand up for their right to continue having lectures in Afrikaans, they said.
It was not just about language, as they had been warned by the protesters that Afrikaners must leave South Africa, they said.
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Just as much as the right of black students to be taught in English was acknowledged and respected, the Afrikaans students said they were demanding that their right to be taught in Afrikaans be treated the same way. The university beefed up its security personnel, which by then was acting as a barrier between the two clashing groups.
But that did not stop the chaos from erupting and escalating; the groups started hurling profanities and throwing stones, bricks and empty plastic bottles at each other. There was much shoving and pushing and a few punches and kicks were exchanged.
A security guard was injured in the scuffle and was seen washing blood off his face. Another security officer and a student were taken away by emergency vehicles. They had been struck by missiles.
Outside the amphitheatre where the black students had intended to gather, the white students applauded each other on their “victory”.
When the protesters eventually made it to the amphitheatre, student leaders addressed them regarding the way forward.
Michael Ngobeni, of #AfrikaansMustFall, said despite the “clear aggression” towards them shown by the white students, they were not going to promote violence as a means of getting what they wanted
“What they (white students) refuse to see is that we are not fighting an individual or certain group. We are fighting an institutional policy and culture fostered in this university, which says the black child must suffer or go and study elsewhere,” he said. “What they need to understand is that once they attack, we are going to protect and defend ourselves accordingly.”
Amla Monageng, of the EFF student command, said they were disappointed with the university, which he accused of picking a side.”We were just trying to make our way to the amphitheatre when the white Afrikaans students attacked us,” he said.
University spokeswoman Anna-Retha Bouwer said they enlisted the police and beefed up security on their campuses following threats of violence and disruptions of classes. “We have called off classes after parents complained about the safety of their children.”
Earlier at the Pretoria Magistrate's Court, the 24 students arrested when violence erupted on Friday stood behind the glass door and watched as their fellow students arrived in large numbers to support them.
The crowd outside chanted, but the 24 could not join them as that would have been a contravention of their bail conditions.
The students were released on police bail, and all refused to be photographed. While 27 students were initially arrested, charges against three of them were dropped.
They will be charged with public violence for their role during the clashes that ensued at the university’s Hatfield campus after student leaders withdrew from talks on reviewing the language policy. The protesters were calling for the scrapping of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
Legal representatives for the students requested that the matter be conducted speedily, bearing in mind that they had to return to their studies.
The State prosecutor requested that the case be postponed to April 7 to allow for further investigations and for video footage and photographs to be obtained. This was granted, on condition that they adhered to bail conditions.
As part of the conditions, they may not take part in any unlawful protest action during the course of the court case and investigations.
Mthokozisi Lukhele, of #UPRising, said the students were more determined than ever to ensure that Afrikaans was removed as a language of instruction. “These arrests are not going to deter us from our goal. If anything, we will continue to strike in support of our fellow students,” he said. “We won’t accept any resolution that involves Afrikaans as medium.”