Desperate university students plan guerrilla-style protests

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As a desperately tight window for the resumption of lectures at universities around the country starts to close, students at the centre of the fees revolt are planning guerrilla-style protest tactics to disrupt lectures this week.

At Wits University, where students voted overwhelmingly in a poll to return to class, militant protesters plotted ways to continue the disruptions, including occupying certain campus buildings from midnight last night, while a handful suggested openly taking up arms.

Wits academics are expected to return to the campus today and lectures are to resume tomorrow under increased security.

At a meeting in the Solomon Mahlangu Hall at Wits yesterday, it was suggested that protesting students "fight fire with fire" and carry firearms.

"We can get AK47s . those who have connections can assist. Even if it's just knives. We have to fight back when the system responds with violence," one student said.

However, he was shouted down.

Students at the meeting have decided to form small, highly mobile groups to target "specific academic nerve centres" to disrupt and ensure a complete shutdown of the university. They said it was easy for the police and security guards to tackle large groups but that small groups would create difficulties for the security personnel.

They agreed that students should cover their faces during the protests to avoid identification and devised plans for occupying campus buildings overnight and holding night vigils.

The calls for continued protests and intensified violence are being made despite a poll at Wits and demonstrations at UCT in favour of a return to lectures. In the poll at Wits on Thursday, 77% of the 21 000 students who responded, and 91% of the university's academics, said they wanted to return to classes.

On Friday 3,000 students and staff at University of Cape Town held a silent protest demanding that the institution re-open tomorrow. A smaller group opposed them.

Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University students said yesterday that their protests would continue "no matter what".

The results of the Wits poll and the UCT demonstrations reveal that there are profound divisions in the #FeesMustFall movement, which education specialists say are along political party lines.

EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema told The Times yesterday that his party fully supported the protests - but they should be peaceful. "We have always condemned the burning of institutions of higher learning, schools, and particularly libraries - burning knowledge is unacceptable."

But, said Malema, although the closure of universities and the loss of an academic year would be "unfortunate", "there is a price to be paid in any revolution. There has to be a fight. It's a justifiable fight".

  • Wits students vote to go back to lecturesThe majority of students at the University of the Witwatersrand want to go back to class on Monday.

He said students were being tortured and arrested because they were demanding free education.

"It's a good thing to die for. Don't be scared to die on the field for fighting for a good thing; you will die a martyr."

Wits spokesman Shirona Patel said staff would return to work today. She said the security presence would be gradually reduced if there were no disruptions, violence, destruction of property or infringement on the rights of others. "We urge staff and students to work with us as we re-open this week. Together, we can still save the 2016 academic year while continuing the struggle for free education for the poor and the 'missing middle'."

She said the university was willing to talk to student leaders.

  • Thousands hold silent protest to keep UCT doors of learning openThousands of students and staff heeded a call to sit down for an hour and read in silence on the steps of the University of Cape Town (UCT) upper campus on Friday.

Ahmed Essop, a research associate at the University of Johannesburg's Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies, said divisions among the student body were not helping the cause.

''My sense is that, unlike last year when students were united across party lines and had the broad support of students generally and also lots of public support, I think it's clear that, this time, they're divided along party-political lines.

''Also, with the violence and burning of infrastructure they have lost the public support that they had behind them,'' Essop said.

Violence erupted after the government announced that universities would determine their own tuition rates for 2017, with increases capped at 8%. The state will raise subsidies for poor students.

  • KZN students weep as bail is deniedSome of University KwaZulu-Natal students burst into tears when their bail application was delayed in the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate's Court on Friday afternoon.

With their finances already stretched by the government's decision to limit tuition fees this year after student riots in 2015, the universities say they might not be able to continue operating.

"We are very anxious," said Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities SA. ''There is no possibility as far as I can tell that the state will find the money to meet the no-fees demand.''

If classes do not resume soon students will have to finish their courses in 2017, leaving no room for new students, according to the UCT vice-chancellor, Max Price.

At least R600-million of damage has been caused to campus property across the country since the protests started a year ago.

- Additional reporting by Bloomberg

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