Student protesters have threatened to block next week’s planned resumption of lectures at a prestigious South African university if fees are not scrapped immediately, officials and students said.
Students at the Johannesburg-based University of Witwatersrand (Wits), where classes have been suspended for nearly three weeks, said they would block the reopening of campuses on Monday, failing free education.
“We are fighting for free quality decolonised education. If we cannot come to an agreement with management we have no choice but to continue the shutdown,” Anzio Jacobs, one of the students’ representatives, told reporters.
Wits rector Adam Habib said in response that the demands for immediate free tuition would cause “a complete shutdown” and “the sacrifice of the 2016 academic year”.
“Essentially what they are saying is if there is no free education, there should be no education at all. I think it is incredibly provocative, incredibly dangerous,” Habib told a news conference.
Authorities at the university, which enrolled 37,000 students this year, will meet at the weekend to decide on the next step.
The university, along with many campuses across South Africa, has been closed during protests over tuition fees, with violent clashes regularly erupting between students, police and private security guards.
Campuses nationwide including the University of Cape Town, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Pretoria have all been hit by violence, arson and closures in recent weeks.
The wave of protests was triggered by a government announcement that universities would set their own fee increases but that next year’s hikes should not exceed 8%.
The government, grappling with a budget deficit of nearly 4% of GDP, has warned that education subsidies should not come at the expense of other sectors like health and housing.
The National Treasury allocated nearly 300bn rand ($21.5bn) towards education in its 1.46tn rand 2016/17 budget, compared with 168bn rand for health.
Student protesters say the fee increases force poorer, often black, pupils out of education.
Last year, students – many of them so-called “born frees” who grew up after apartheid – staged a series of huge demonstrations which forced the government to abandon planned fee hikes for 2016.
The cost of university education, prohibitive for many black students, has become a symbol of the inequalities that endure in South Africa more than two decades after the end of apartheid.
Wits’ Habib told a media briefing that the university was striving to save the current academic year, which in the southern hemisphere ends in December.
“The struggle for free education is a noble cause. But it is not a cause that requires the sacrifice of the 2016 academic year,” Habib said.
Undergraduate tuition fees at Wits, which is one of South Africa’s most expensive universities, range between 29,620 rand to 58,580 rand a year depending on the course, beyond the means of many black students.