Despite only making headlines recently, student protests at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) have been going on for almost a month. The events started out as a protest against fee increments, but students at the Pietermaritzburg campus are now also focusing their attention on the way the police have responded to their protests.
On August 10, students began organising when talks of increasing fees at the university in 2017 by 6% began.
One student told the Mail & Guardian that a large number of students at the university relied on financial aid and would not be able to return to class in 2017 should there be a fee hike.
By August 15, the university was shut down. The university’s vice-chancellor and principal said that no decision had been made with regard to fee increases for next year.
“The university council has not deliberated on issues relating to fee increments as it awaits a directive from the department of higher education and training. The department, on the other hand, constituted a multi-stakeholder forum to discuss the issue. In a nutshell, no decision on fee increments has been made,” UKZN vice-chancellor Dr Albert van Jaarsveld said.
The 8% fee increase and the student reaction
After the initial shutdown, the university was re-opened and students returned to class until August 23 when the vice-chancellor released a statement to students saying that all five of UKZN’s campuses would suspend their academic programme and the decision was taken in consultation with the SRC, which has been active in the protests.
One student told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday that the SRC handed a memorandum of demands to management and negotiations had begun to address students’ concerns. But no agreement was reached.
“The SRC was not happy with that but they encouraged us to go back to class so they could continue with the negotiations and we don’t fall back in our school work,” said the second year geography and environmental science student, who wished to protect her identity.
But on September 4, following reports that vice-chancellors at various institutions had agreed to an 8% fee hike for 2017, the UKZN Fees Must Fall movement posted a call to students to begin protesting.
By 3pm on Monday, the protest was in full swing, with students going to various lecture halls and classes to gather more protesters.
“I was in the library when it happened. They stood outside the library, they started chanting songs and we were asked to leave the library. We just left the library and joined the people who were singing,” the second year geography and environmental science student said
“There was no violence. People actually had their school books because we had been there the whole day,” she added.
In response, the public order policing unit soon arrived on campus. The student alleges that campus protection services called the police and from there on the campus became fogged in teargas.
A ‘teargas’ campus
By 4pm, the university was covered in teargas. Students who left the library tried to make their way outside the campus onto Durban Road to reach the the three student residences where they could find more protesters to join them. But once they attempted leave the university, police reacted.
“There was teargas all over campus. The police also went to the res that the people were going to and they threw teargas inside the res to make sure the kids could not get to the res because there was teargas everywhere else,” the student said.
“Basically they barricaded every road on campus and they were just throwing teargas to trap us inside. They went into our res and they threw teargas into the corridors,” she said.
Another student told the Mail & Guardian that she struggled to get into her room because of the teargas both inside her residence and outside.
“Last night, they fired the teargas at students at a parking lot by my residence. We were suffocated by teargas. My eyes watered, my nose was irritated and my throat was sore from the constant coughing and I couldn’t even enter my room because my windows were open and the teargas was inside,” she said in an e-mail to the Mail & Guardian.
That night a student was allegedly raped by a police officer.
Allegations of rape and live ammuntion
Pumelela Nqelenga, a drama lecturer at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, posted on her Facebook page that on Tuesday morning a student had waited more than two hours for an ambulance to arrive after she had been raped the previous night.
In an interview with the Daily Vox, Nqelenga said that academic staff had been protesting outside the campus security headquarters when a student walked up to them and simply waited. She told them she was waiting for an ambulance.
“We asked her why she was waiting for an ambulance and she said she was raped the night before by an SAPS official,” Nqelenga said
“There is no official report to the police. We are waiting for the survivor to see what she wants to do. At the moment she is at the hospital and she is getting herself tested. She is the one who is going to choose the way forward.”
Students were angered by the rape and changed their plan on Tuesday, deciding to protest against police brutality instead.
A protest against police brutality
“The SRC said we’re going to put what we’re fighting for on the side and start protesting what’s happening now. We can’t have a situation where we’re not safe on campus when we live on campus,” the second year student protester told the Mail & Guardian.
But it’s not just the police – students have said that the private security company hired by the university has been allowed to shoot at students on campus.
“The issue for me personally is the police brutality and also the task force hired by the university which goes by the name “MI7”. A week and a half ago, the MI7 attacked and shot a group of innocent girls (with rubber bullets),” another student said.
One of the student demands is the removal of private security from campus grounds. For now, students are fighting to also get the police off their campus.
Later on Tuesday, a video was widely shared which showed students carrying a peer who had a bloody wound on her leg. The injury resembled a gunshot wound and students said that police fired live ammunition.
The police response
KwaZulu-Natal police spoke to the Mail & Guardian, saying that public order police and officers from the Alexander Road police station were still monitoring protesters, describing them as a “ruthless crowd”.
“We have not received any reports of injuries and no report of an alleged rape has been made at this stage.Police did not use live ammunition, only rubber bullets were used,” said Major Thulani Zwane, spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal SAPS.
Zwane also said that teargas had not been thrown into student residences, despite many students reporting that they could not enter or leave their residence because of the gas.
When asked about excessive police force being used against students, the spokesperson said it was a reaction to students who threw rocks.
“Remember the students complain about the police, but nothing has been said about them throwing stones at us,” Zwane said.
Reports could be filed with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate if students did not trust SAPS, Zwane said, but many students have been reluctant to file any documents for fear that they will later be suspended or victimised.
Female students feel particularly vulnerable as a result of the language police use when talking to women protesters.
“As of recent the police have been firing teargas at our residences, shooting students and also calling girls “iyfebe” which means “sluts” in Zulu. They would say this right before they fire shots at them,” a student told the Mail & Guardian.
It’s unclear what will happen next, but students have argued that the use of police force is not a solution to their concerns. The university management has shut down the campus for the remainder of the week.