About 40 security guards monitoring a number of students taking part in a hunger strike at the University of Witwatersrand. File picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency(ANA)

JOHANNESBURG - The University of the Witwatersrand on Thursday lashed out at a group of protesters accusing them of using the continuing students' hunger strike for political reasons.

The institution's management said a group of about 50 protesters who wore face masks, arrived early morning, blocking entrances to the campus and placing rocks on the roads. 

The group was heeding calls to shut down campuses and was targeting Wits first so that other institutions would follow suit, the university said.

''We are of the view that these individuals do not have the interest of our students at heart. Their aim is to disrupt learning and to hold higher education institutions to ransom in order to advance their own political agenda. Their agenda has nothing to do with free education but is rather a deliberate attempt to destabilise our university,'' Wits management said in a statement.

''We need to expose these persons who are on our campus today trying to disrupt our lectures and to shut down our campuses. We need to expose them, suspend them if they are students and have them arrested if they are threatening people, infringing on the rights of others to learn and work and damaging property.''

Lectures were disrupted this week as students embarked on a hunger strike against financial exclusion, demanding the registration and accommodation of students with outstanding tuition fees. 

The students staged a sit-in at Solomon Mahlangu House, a building on the campus. Scuffles broke out between private security guards and the students on Tuesday. 

One student was injured as security guards reportedly retaliated after students threw pillows at them.

Tensions rose early Thursday as protesters threw rubbish across the campus, despite the university's Twitter messages that the campus had returned to normal, urging staffers and students to return to work and lecture rooms.

Management said it had made ''numerous concessions'' for students and had further established a R13 million Hardship Fund to cater for destitute students. The Wits Hardship Fund evaluation committee, which includes members of the Student Representative Council (SRC), has assisted 567 students in the last two weeks, the university said.

''The fund has helped 220 students for urgent accommodation and assisted 347 returning students to register. We are still open to negotiations with internal constituencies like the SRC, provided that they engage in good faith and take responsibility for their actions. An SRC leader was almost suspended this week for disrupting classes, and the university will no longer hesitate to hold individuals who break the law accountable for their actions. The university is no longer in a position to chase goalposts that keep moving.''

Police spokesperson Colonel Lungelo Dlamini confirmed Thursday morning's chaos, saying police had fired stun grenades in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

He added that no arrests had been made and that the situation had returned to normal. 

"Police are continuing to monitor the situation," he told IOL. 

By Thursday afternoon, protesters were still at it, with students vowing to continue with their protest until their demands were met. 

African News Agency (ANA) and IOL