South African police fight students demanding free education

Riot police keep watch over protesting students on a campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, during clashes with police and private security officers. Police fired rubber bullets and set off stun grenades to disperse the protesters after the university announced it was re-opening despite sometimes violent demonstrations for free education. (AP Photo/Wikus de Wet)

JOHANNESBURG - South African students protesting for free education disrupted lectures at one of the country's leading universities on Tuesday, clashing with police who tried to disperse crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.

The violence at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in Johannesburg erupted despite an appeal from the vice-chancellor, Adam Habib. He had asked students and staff to "take back our campus" from what he called a minority of students who would rather protest than study.

"Stop shooting at us," shouted a young woman, one of several female protesters who stripped to the waist and accosted police in helmets and body armour.

Similar unrest has occurred since last month at some other financially struggling South African universities, forcing a number, including Wits, to close. The university sought to re-open Tuesday — the main campus was disrupted, but classes proceeded on other Wits campuses.

The government said it will cover fee increases of poor university students in 2017, but protesters rejected the concession. Bigger protests in 2015 forced the government to announce the suspension of university fee increases this year.

The demand for free education stems partly from wider dissatisfaction over economic inequities in South Africa, and the belief that universities and other institutions were not adequately transformed to benefit the black majority after the end of white minority rule in 1994.

President Jacob Zuma says the protests have caused about $44 million in property damage and threaten to sabotage the country's higher education system.

"Wits is Ours," read a banner held up by protesters who accused police of confronting them first. They pulled up paving stones and broke them into pieces, hurling the debris at officers. Protesters also smashed the windows of a police car.

"We're all angry," said Nkululeko Tselane, a law student who had a large bump on the back of his head, the result of what he said was a clubbing by university guards when violence broke out Tuesday.

Tselane described university warnings that the protests might force the cancellation of the academic year as a "scare tactic" and vowed that demonstrations would continue.

Habib, the vice-chancellor, previously said he was aware of student and staff concerns about learning "in a 'securitized' environment with police guarding lecture halls," but said a robust security presence on the Wits campus was necessary Tuesday because of the protesters.

Two students were arrested in confrontations with police and security guards, and one student and one staff member were injured, the university said.

Two students were also arrested at the University of Cape Town, where protesters tried to block entrances and disrupt lectures, said Max Price, the vice-chancellor. However, he said, most operations proceeded at the university, which had also been shut because of demonstrations.

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Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris

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