By Antoinette Keyser
A hostage drama at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg ended late on Wednesday afternoon when a student in his late 20s was arrested, after controversial politician Winnie Madikizela-Mandela persuaded him to hand himself over.
The student, who was suspended because he did not pay his tuition fees, held Wits administrative employee Glenda Lane hostage for about six hours.
The drama started just after 11am when the student became involved in an argument with the dean of student affairs in Senate House over his outstanding fees. Brandishing a large knife, he followed the dean into Lane's office where he took both hostage. The dean, however, escaped and alerted authorities, Wits registrar Derek Schwemmer told the media shortly after the drama ended.
A colleague of Lane, Robert Sharman, made contact with the student and tried to negotiate with him until the police and specialised hostage negotiators arrived on the scene.
Members of the police's special task force were also deployed inside the building and paramedics were on standby.
The student demanded to speak to the university's director of finance as well as education minister Kader Asmal. He also told university authorities to call The Star newspaper.
Asmal, who was attending a Cabinet meeting in Pretoria, arrived in Johannesburg around lunchtime to speak to the student.
Schwemmer said that the student was extremely threatening at first, but calmed down after talking to Asmal.
"Our main aim throughout was to ensure that Ms Lane is not injured," he said.
"We told (the student) that we can't speak to him while he is holding someone hostage."
Former first lady Madikizela-Mandela also arrived at the scene and was allowed into the building to talk to the young man.
Schwemmer said she played a key role in resolving the crisis.
"She asked him to release the hostage into her care and to let the law take its course."
She asked him to release the hostage into her care, then allowed Madikizela-Mandela to take charge of Lane and handed himself over to the police.
Lane was not injured during the incident although she was tied up with computer cables. After her release she received trauma counseling as well as treatment for shock.
The student was a student at Wits for the past four years, Schwemmer said. He started with a BA degree in 1999 but changed to the undergraduate law degree in 2000. In 2001 he changed back to a BA degree but was unsuccessful, according to Schwemmer. He was allowed to repeat his second year in 2002, but the results were not made available because he did not pay his university fees. He owes Wits more than R10 000.
Schwemmer said that the student had previously received funds from a national financial assistance scheme for students, but did not qualify for a roll-over loan to continue his studies.
"He was a desperate young man," Schwemmer said.
"We agreed to review his situation, which is all we could do."
Asmal condemned the incident and said that "life-threatening situations like that" could not be tolerated at tertiary institutions. He would not divulge what he had discussed with the student, but added that the student's grievances would be taken up with the university's vice-chancellor.
"We must discuss and debate issues, not act like this. Discussion and debate are the way to go at universities," the minister said.
Asmal said he did not believe that similar incidents would become a regular occurrence at universities.
"There are avenues open to students who want to voice their grievances. Slogans will not help, we must talk about it."
He said he was prepared to talk to national student organisations about their grievances, and added that he was pleased that the incident had come to a safe conclusion.
Earlier in the day a group of students expressed dissatisfaction with the police's task force being at the university.
"They are here to kill," one said.
"It is up to us to make sure our brother comes out of there alive."
Police spokesperson Superintendent Chris Wilken said the student would be charged with kidnapping, assault, attempted murder and intimidation. He was being held at the Hillbrow police station and it was expected that he would appear in the Hillbrow Magistrate's Court on Thursday. - Sapa