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Racism and privilege stoke S.Africa student protests

South African policemen fire rubber bullets to disperse students from the University of Witwatersrand during clashes following a protest for free education on October 10, 2016 in Johannesburg © AFP / Gianluigi Guercia

Johannesburg, South Africa, Oct 11 – Weeks of protests at South African universities have targeted tuition fees — but students say they are also about racism and inequality in a society still plagued by the legacy of apartheid.

The demonstrations have tapped into deep problems in the country, where many black people are unable to get decent education, jobs or housing despite white minority rule ending more than 20 years ago.

At a meeting at the prestigious Wits University in Johannesburg last week, Mcebo Dlamini, one of the student leaders, was greeted with thunderous applause when he tackled the touchstone subject of race.

“We are eager to restore the dignity of black children,” he told the audience of about 1,000, which included only a handful of white people.

“We want a free and decolonised education. We are not equal in this university,” he said.

Over the last three weeks, campuses across South Africa have been gripped by the protests against tuition fees, which could rise by up to eight percent next year.

The protesters have demanded free education, saying that poorer black students are being denied access to universities and good careers.

With several universities forced to close for weeks, the demonstrations have often developed into violent running battles as students hurl rocks, and police fire rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.

A South African policeman tries to apprehend a student from the University of Witwatersrand during a protest for free high education on October 10, 2016 in Johannesburg © AFP / Gianluigi Guercia

“Free education is a way to achieve equality, to repair what people had to go through in the past,” Tauriq, a student protester, told AFP.

“It is about challenging the norms of society, challenging what people consider as normal. If you are not black, you cannot associate with this problem.

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“They (white people) don’t understand what it feels like to be in a mall and stand in a corner, and people assume you are going to steal.”

– Government support –

Tauriq’s mother, who is single, has four children and earns $450 (400 euros) a month.

Without a grant that covers his tuition fees, he would not be able to attend university — but many others don’t have the same support.

The African National Congress (ANC) government has vowed to provide further financial help for all students from poor backgrounds, and said its aim is to provide free university education in the long term.

But it has also warned that public funds are desperately needed elsewhere, and has condemned students who have forced campuses to shut down or been involved in violence.

Masked students from the University of Witwatersrand enter a hall to disrupt lectures during a protest for free high education on October 10, 2016 in Johannesburg © AFP / Gianluigi Guercia

The protests “should be expected in a society where everything was designed in a way to support and legitimise white supremacy,” Mcebisi Ndletyana, a political science professor at the University of Johannesburg, told AFP.

An internet poll conducted by Wits University suggested most students wanted classes to resume, while a small number of mainly white students have launched a “Keep Wits Open” campaign.

“We agree with the movement but are unhappy with intimidation and the bullying from some of the protesters to stop students entering campus and being chased out of lectures,” said its leader Stuart Young in a video message.

“We are speaking not for the privileged but for students who are trying to graduate this year.”

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On Monday, Wits again tried to resume lectures but vicious clashes erupted amid clouds of teargas and a hail of rocks on the steps of the colonnaded Great Hall auditorium.

The government has set up a commission to investigate funding of higher education, but South Africa’s campuses look set for further turmoil before it delivers recommendations sometime next year.

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