, PRETORIA, Oct 23 – South African President Jacob Zuma on Friday abandoned proposed hikes to university fees after student protests culminated in police firing stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas outside government headquarters.
Some demonstrators tried to force their way towards the Union Buildings in the capital Pretoria, tearing down a security fence, setting fire to portable toilets and hurling bricks at police lines in chaotic scenes.
Zuma had been due to address the volatile crowd after meeting with student leaders and university officials inside the buildings, but instead he read a short statement at a televised press briefing.
“We agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016,” he said.
“Government understands the difficulty faced by students from poor households, and urges all affected to allow the process to unfold to find long-term solutions in order to ensure access to education.”
Universities around the country have been closed over the last week as students protested against the proposed fee rises, which they say would mean poorer black youths were unable to study for degrees.
The issue of education fees has ignited widespread frustration in South Africa over a lack of opportunities for young people since the end of apartheid, worsened by a weakening economy and high unemployment.
Many students said they would continue protesting even after Zuma’s announcement.
“The government thinks we are playing, they think it’s because we want to run away from school,” Kgotsi Genge, a 22-year-old student at the University of Pretoria, told AFP.
“But we will keep fighting. South Africa needs to invest more in education. This movement is because we are being oppressed.”
– ‘Born-frees’ vent anger –
Earlier this week, hundreds of students stormed through the gates outside parliament in Cape Town as police struggled to protect the national assembly.
Protests have also erupted daily in Johannesburg, University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape province and several other provincial cities.
“This was supposed to be peaceful,” Jessica Littlewood, a 20-year-old criminology student at the University of Pretoria, told AFP.
“This movement is by the students, for the students.”
The Union Buildings are the official seat of the South African government and where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president when white-minority apartheid rule fell in 1994.
University fees were set to rise up to 10 percent next year, with a general Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) currently costing 46,000 rand ($3,400).
Zuma’s statement targeted “institutional autonomy” in a reference to universities’ right to set their own fees, in an apparent attempt to steer criticism away from the African National Congress (ANC) government.
Campus activism has been increasing this year as students — many of them so-called “born frees” who did not experience the struggle against apartheid — vent their anger over continuing racial inequality.
Protests over education have a strong resonance in South Africa, where the Soweto uprisings in 1976 against Afrikaans-language lessons were brutally suppressed by police.
Earlier this year, students at UCT led a high-profile and successful campaign for the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus.