Chaos reigns at Pietermaritzburg UKZN Campus

Amil Umraw, The Witness

Pietermaritzburg - The strike at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus erupted again on Wednesday night. A car was set alight in Alan Paton Avenue near the Nando’s at around 20:30.

Reporting from the scene, Kailene Pillay said police were out in full force with the fire department and paramedics on scene. Alan Paton Avenue was closed to traffic.

An armoured vehicle was seen in the area where protesters had blocked the road with debris. She said students were peeping out of residence windows and police were telling them to stay down.

The chaos first erupted on Tuesday night when bullets, teargas, rocks and petrol bombs filled the night sky.

A violent clash between students and police engulfed the Scottsville area, with ear-piercing blasts and riotous shrieks echoing from about 21:00 until the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The university’s various campuses in Pietermaritzburg and Durban have been rocked by sporadic attacks since Saturday, with students believed to be protesting over issues related to the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), student accommodation and the university’s intended closing of the Registration Appeals Committee (RAC) process.

On Tuesday night, police had to rope in every available unit to battle students after vandals set a university bus alight and stoned a taxi on the main campus at about 20:00.

After a fire truck doused the flames, hundreds of students equipped with homemade petrol bombs, large concrete blocks and bricks blocked Alan Paton Avenue with burning rubbish bins and metal sheets.

Members of Pietermaritzburg’s public order policing (POP) unit, taxi violence unit and every available officer in the vicinity mobilised, confronting the enraged students with rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades.

The students broke up into small groups, gathering at strategic positions on the campus and their residences to divert police attention as the clashes continued into the night.

Officers could be seen combing the streets outside the residences, firing rubber bullets at students who had resorted to shielding themselves with blankets and doors. Other officers crouched in dark corners, firing at the students as they started fires in bins.

Witness reporters were struck by both rubber bullets and a rock.

At about 02:00 on Wednesday, ER24 ­paramedics on scene said no injuries had been reported.

Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Mthokozisi Ngobese said no arrests had been made and cases of malicious damage to property were being investigated.

The university’s executive director of corporate relations, Lesiba Seshoka, condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the “wanton violence and damage” perpetrated on their campuses.

“A bus belonging to a private company was burnt on the Pietermaritzburg campus … and an investigation into the acts of misconduct and violence is under way,” Seshoka said.

“The university’s management is currently engaging members of the students’ representative council (SRC) to understand the causes of the unrest and to address the student grievances.”

“This is like in 1976; there was no leader in that march,” said an SRC member who would not be named.

He said he saw nothing wrong with the violence. “The truth is we are fighting a violent system. To respond to a violent system you need to be violent. This is a revolution.”

Other SRC members, who would also not be named, said there was no proof it was students who had thrown stones and petrol bombs, and burnt the bus. “The security in this university is not up to scratch. Anybody can enter as they please without being asked questions. So anyone who has an agenda against the university could have entered and caused trouble,” said one SRC source.

The SRC said the protest action was started by clubs and societies who raised issues they were unhappy with.

They denied starting to protest after seeing Westville campus students protesting, and blamed police for the violence. “They did not even tell the students to disperse. They just came in and started firing rubber bullets,” said one SRC member.

He said they had been raising their grievances since November, and that the university was trying to exclude poor students.

Pietermaritzburg’s FET College on Pietermaritz Street erupted into chaos on Wednesday afternoon as hundreds of students gathered to “support” their colleagues at UKZN.

The students blocked the street with burning tyres and rubble until police dispersed the crowd.

Traffic became chaotic in the city centre as streets were closed off around the protest.

Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Constable Mthokozisi Ngobese said around 800 Umgungundlovu FET college students had banded together in solidarity with the UKZN protesters.

“The police used teargas to disperse them. No injuries were reported and no arrests have been made.

“If they continue with the unprotected strike, we will have no choice but to arrest them.”

Numerous attempts to reach the college’s principal proved unsuccessful at the time of going to print.

The Witness