Police, students clash as South Africa's Wits university reopens

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police clashed with student protesters demanding free education on Monday at the University of the Witwatersand (Wits) which had reopened after demonstrations forced its closure last week.

Demonstrators hurled rocks at shield-wielding private security guards while police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse the crowd at the Wits Johannesburg campus.

Protesting students took to the streets of Braamfontein district, where the university is located, police said. Television footage showed several people trying to topple a bus in downtown Johannesburg and later set it on fire

Weeks of countrywide protests over the cost of university education, which is prohibitive for many black students, have highlighted frustration at enduring inequalities more than two decades after the end of apartheid.

The protests came after President Jacob Zuma’s government said it would continue subsidizing university costs for the poorest students but could not afford free education for all.

Acting police Commissioner Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane said officers fired teargas in retaliation after students disrupted classes at Wits by chasing students who showed up for lessons out of the class with sticks.

“The police came under constant attacks by groups of students who pelted them with rocks,” he said, adding that several students had been arrested at various universities.

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Phahlane said that there were scuffles between students and police at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, 400 km (240 miles) south of Johannesburg.

A Wits university spokeswoman earlier said the university had reopened. In a subsequent statement, Wits however said lectures had been disrupted by large groups of protesters.

“We urge students and staff to return to classes this week, even if disruptions occur,” it said.

“The protests are continuing because students’ demands have not been met. There hasn’t been sufficient engagement from the university,” a member of the Wits Student Representative Council, Palomino Jama, told Reuters.

Universities suspended classes last week after clashes in which police fired stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas at stone-throwing students at Wits.

Some students are demanding all universities be shut down until the government provides free education.

Statistics South Africa data shows that university fees have soared by 80 percent since 2008, leading to the initial batch of protests last year that forced Zuma to scrap proposed increases for 2016.

But universities whose main source of income is fees say another price freeze next year would hurt their efforts to maintain academic standards.

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 says education subsidies should not come at the expense of other sectors such as health and housing.

Additional reporting by Tanisha Heiberg and Nqobile Dludla; Editing by James Macharia and Dominic Evans