South African student protesters demand university shutdown
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG - South African students protesting against high tuition fees have demanded that all universities be shut until the government provides free education, Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) said on Friday.
Student leaders, whose protests have forced Wits and Cape Town universities to suspend classes twice in less than a month, could not be reached immediately for comment.
Wits was aiming to reopen on Monday after police clashed earlier this week with student demonstrators on the campus in scenes that recalled apartheid-era skirmishes.
Wits said in a statement that it had "no agreement from the protesting students that the academic program will continue on Monday" and that it had suspended a general assembly scheduled for midday Friday to thrash out differences.
"One of the latest demands of the protesting students is that Wits and all other universities should be shut down until government agrees to free education," Wits said.
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' vice-chancellor Adam 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.
The government, grappling with a budget deficit of nearly 4 percent of GDP, has capped 2017 fee increases for next year at 8 percent, but warns that education subsidies should not come at the expense of other sectors like health and housing.
The National Treasury allocated nearly 300 billion rand ($21.5 billion)towards education in its 1.46 trillion rand 2016/17 budget, compared with 168 billion rand for health.
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.
Protests first erupted last year, then eased off as the government froze fee increases and set up a commission to look into the education funding system.