SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: February 19, 2020

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):University of KwaZulu-Natal

Region & Country:Southern Africa | South Africa

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 19, students protesting tuition debt at the Westville Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) reportedly blocked campus entrances and clashed violently with campus security. One student reportedly assaulted a professor during the clashes.

Starting on January 27, students at UKZN and a number of other South African universities staged strikes and held protests to demand increased student funding, the cancellation of students’ historical debt, and that students carrying debt be permitted to enroll. The protests have been marked by the destruction of campus property and violent clashes between students and authorities.

On the morning of February 19, students reportedly blocked three entrances to the Westville Campus with university property, including mattresses and refrigerators that they had set on fire. Students reportedly threw bricks and rocks at private security guards hired by UKZN. Security guards reportedly threw bricks back at students, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas.

During the clashes, mathematics professor Erwin Brüning attempted to cross through one of the blockaded entrances when a student protester reportedly pushed and kicked him. In a statement, UKZN confirmed the assault against Brüning, sharing that he sustained an injury to his hand and that the university is working with authorities to identify the assailant.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about violence and the destruction of campus property during a campus protest. While students have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, they have a responsibility to exercise their rights peacefully and responsibly. Likewise, while campus security has a responsibility to maintain order and protect security, they have a responsibility to ensure that their response is proportionate to the situation, and to refrain from actions that restrict or retaliate against expressive activity or that endanger the campus community. Violent clashes during a campus protest undermine institutional autonomy and democratic society generally.