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Africa

S. Africa's Zuma condemns student protests

Student protests in South Africa are taking on an increasingly violent tone following clashes between black and white students at several universities this week. Academic activities are suspended indefinitely.

The latest protests in South Africa come in the wake of violent student demands for fees to be abolished late last year across all universities in the country.

Protesting students burned down several buildings at North-West University, forcing administrators to close the campus. The black students are demanding the phasing out of the Afrikaans language from their studies, while white students are claiming that this is an attack on their culture.

At the University of Free State, a group of white students and their supporters attacked black students who ran on to a sports field during an inter-varsity rugby match. The black students were agitating against what they call the exploitation of black workers and the culture of racism they claim still haunts South Africa.

Similar incidents have taken place at the University of Cape Town where students threw human excreta in some departments on Wednesday and three buildings were set on fire early on Thursday at North-West University's Mahikeng campus.

Students clashing during a protest at a university rugby union match in Bloemfontein(EPA/STR)

Protesting students invaded the pitch in Bloemfontein

Black students are demanding rapid transformation from the culture of white domination to one where all students and people would be treated equally. "We find ourselves in a situation whereby reconciliation tools have completely collapsed at the University of Free State," student Karabo Kao told DW.

Another student, Benz Mabengwane, complained that "black workers are still subjected to inferiority in the campuses. They are still subjected to poor salaries." This could not be allowed to happen anymore, he added.

'Afrikaans Must Fall'

In November last year, student protestors scored a victory following months of unrest at universities across the country. The administration at the prestigious Stellenbosch University announced that classes would be taught in English instead of Afrikaans, a triumph for increasingly combative students who see the university system as a racist remnant of the country's apartheid past.

During the apartheid era, the Afrikaans language was forced on black students as a medium of instruction.

Activists with the student group Open Stellenbosch had complained that Afrikaans was the language of oppression and that using it in instruction disadvantaged black students.

The South African Students Organization (SASCO) which represents mainly black students has now called for the complete phasing out of Afrikaans from the University of Pretoria. SASCO is adamant that the language hampers African students from entering universities.

"For example, a person who has never spoken Afrikaans comes to the university and enters a residence; the songs sung there are in Afrikaans," the spokesperson for SASCO, Junior Ackotia, said, adding that many traditions practised in student residences have their roots in Afrikaans.

South Africa students hold up a banner saying All Rhodes (spelled as in Cecil rhodes) lead to colonisation of the mndprotests © picture-alliance/AA/A. Hendricks

Students protest in Cape Town against "white colonialism"

Meanwhile, white Afrikaan students are fighting back. According to Henrico Barnard, the spokesman for the AfriForum Student Organisation, they believe that in the new democratic South Africa they have a right to receive their education in Afrikaans. "We came a long way last year and we joined hands to fight for education because education is actually the key to unite us and make this country go forward," Barnard said. He argues that the campaign "Afrikaans Must Fall" is a direct attack on their culture.

One South Africa for all

While tensions are running high among black students in former white establishment universities, there are some black and white students who believe that the new South Africa belongs to all who live in it and that Nelson Mandela would be saddened by what is taking place now.

The students have held joint demonstrations to promote unity and peace. "This skin is just a skin, two millimeters deep. This racism must stop," student Fabian Schroeder said, adding that they needed to make their stand very clear. "We are here to unite the country."

A spokesperson for the University of Pretoria, Professor Cheryl de la Ray, says academic staff are shocked at the turn of events since they have always promoted transformation in the interests of all students.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, says most of his students are not racists but an investigation would be conducted to identify and punish the culprits responsible for the latest outbreaks of racial intolerance.

Pressure mounts on Zuma

University authorities around the country have an uphill task to satisfy the demands of the students. The government has now announced that it would provide a further 18-billion rand ($11.5 billion,10 billion euros) to assist poor and needy students but whether this will help to stem the tide for complete transformation from white culture to majority culture remains to be seen.

South African President Jacob Zuma looking angry (Reuters/N. Bothma)

President Jacob Zuma has condemned the protests

South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday condemned the violence and destruction of property by protesting students.

"The burning of university buildings at a time when we are prioritising the education of our youth is inexplicable and can never be condoned," Zuma said in a statement.

Last year, South African students held violent protests against a university fees hike for more than a week. They called on the president to step down and in October President Zuma announced that there would be no increase in fees for students in 2016.

The government is concerned that there are fringe elements behind the students working to create a climate of instability in the country for their own political motives.

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