On April 19, 2021, violence broke out amidst student protests on the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) campus, resulting in the university shutting down.
Since March 8, students at many South African universities have protested policies that exclude students who owe tuition fees from registering for classes. Some of the protests resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters.
Police responded to reports of violence on WSU’s campus in Mthatha on the fourth day of a series of student protests. According to police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo, two officers who responded on board a nyala, an armored personnel carrier, escaped the vehicle before it was set on fire. Police alleged that student protesters set the vehicle on fire. Video footage shows students dancing and singing near the burning nyala and throwing objects into the flames. Reports further indicate that four other police officers sustained injuries when students allegedly threw stones at them. One officer was hospitalized. According to university spokesperson Yonelo Tukwayo, students also looted the cafeteria and set a university bus on fire at WSU’s campus in Butterworth. One student was arrested for public violence.
Following the violent protests, the university released a statement indicating that, because student protests had not ceased despite the university’s attempt to engage students, there would be a university-wide shutdown. The university also stated that it had waived Minimum Initial Payments so that students could register for classes despite financial hardship. Following the closure of the university’s campuses, over 100 students were evicted from on-campus housing.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the destruction of campus property and violence during on-campus protests forcing the closure of a university. While students and other protesters have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, they also have a responsibility to exercise these rights peacefully and responsibly. Violence and the destruction of campus property harm the ability of higher education communities to safely and adequately conduct research, teaching, and other academic activities. Such incidents undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.