In South Africa, University students locked out of classes amid national protests

University of Minnesota students studying in South Africa have been locked out of classes for nearly a month as protests against tuition increases escalate.

Protesters assemble at the University of Cape Town on Oct. 5, 2016. Protests over tuition in South Africa have resulted in long university closures, leaving students studying abroad unable to attend classes.

Photo courtesy of Emma Dunn

Protesters assemble at the University of Cape Town on Oct. 5, 2016. Protests over tuition in South Africa have resulted in long university closures, leaving students studying abroad unable to attend classes.

Rilyn Eischens

University of Cape Town (UCT) Professor Elisa Galgut managed to cover only a third of the semester’s curriculum before she was forced to cancel classes.

As a result of intensifying student-led protests against proposed tuition increases, many college students in South Africa — including three University of Minnesota students — have been locked out of classes for nearly a month.

“Protesters threatened to harm my students if they returned to class,” Galgut said.

University students will still receive credit, but as protests escalate, it is unclear if classes will resume this semester. The demonstrations have been divisive — while some students and professors agree with the cause, they call the actions unacceptable.

Demonstrations at UCT began in March 2015 — and the nation-wide #FeesMustFall movement — picked up a year ago when universities began discussing 2016 fees, said UCT spokesperson Patricia Lucas in a statement.

Universities announced a tuition increase of about eight percent late September, which protesters say would put higher education out of reach for many students.

The most recent wave of protests started in early September, a month after Minnesota students arrived at UCT for a semester-long study abroad program, Galgut said.

Neuroscience senior Annika Skansberg, one Minnesota student at UCT, said the protesters first relied on chants and whistles to disrupt classes, but demonstrations have intensified in the past two weeks. Bombs have been set off and protesters have also thrown sewage, damaged property and started fires, she said.

Galgut said the protests at other universities in the country are even more serious, including a school in Johannesburg where a worker died after a mob sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. In a statement, the school — University of the Witwatersrand — could not confirm the worker’s cause of death.

“As it gets more aggressive, obviously the [police] reaction to the protesters is more aggressive,” Skansberg said. “They’re starting to use teargas [and] stun grenades.”

Global studies junior Marna Wal said at first, students didn’t even know if they would receive credit or get to stay in the country.

“A lot of us were really anxious and worried,” she said, adding that many other international students were returning home.

UCT tried to resume classes, but protesters disrupted them each time, so the school finally announced classes won’t start again this semester, Wal said.

But University students will still receive credit despite the cancellations, said University Learning Abroad Center (LAC) Associate Director Zach Mohs.

Mohs said UCT exams are scheduled to begin Nov. 7 to accommodate foreign students and can be taken on-site, online or in the U.S. with a proctor.

Most professors are testing students on material covered before the disruptions and some are asking students to study material on their own, Skansberg said.

“In a situation like this, our main concern is student safety,” Mohs said. “As long as they stay safe and we believe they can get credit, they’ll stay.”

But such sweeping protests didn’t appear imminent while the trip was being planned, Mohs said; the LAC is keeping close tabs on the situation as they prepare to send more students in the spring semester.

The LAC will let students decide if they want to travel there in the spring, defer their enrollment or choose another program, but Mohs said the situation is tricky because the program is offered through affiliate Arcadia University.

“If it got to a point where the protests were continuing and intensifying and the university was nervous about even starting the spring semester, that’s where we’d say … we’re not going to send students,” he said.

Despite the protests and uneasiness in Cape Town, Skansberg said she feels safe around campus.

“It’s more a feeling that you don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said, citing a time when her friend left a residence hall and was pulled into a mob where demonstrators were hit with stun guns.

But some say the protests have far-reaching consequences beyond violence and property damage.

“The impact on students who want to study has been enormous. The … effects into [broader] society are also very concerning,” Galgut said.

If medical students don’t graduate on time, there could be a shortage of doctors in needy communities, she said.

Additionally, students in residence halls haven’t been able to access food, and others are cut off from public transit and libraries, she said.

UCT Professor David Benatar called the demonstrations “appalling.”

“From the beginning, the protesters have resorted to illegality,” he said. “The nature of the protests … has understandably caused deep anxieties among the rest of the student population.”

Skansberg said some of the protester’s tactics alienate the public.

“People aren’t really necessarily happy when they break property or … throw sewage,” she said. “It’s forcing people to clean up that have nothing to do with the fees.”

Skansberg said at first she was upset about class cancellations, but now sees it as an exciting time to learn about South African culture and lived-experiences.

“This is going to be a major event in history,” she said. “It is an inconvenience, and it’s not what I expected, but … I don’t regret coming.”

Wal said she participated in protests before in Minnesota, and was surprised by how involved people are in the South African movement.

“The U proposed to increase tuition fees for out-of-state students, and I remember people were protesting against that, but … it was a [small] group of students,” she said. “Here, thousands of students are filling campus and protesting.” 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the duration of the lockout at UCT. The length of the lockout was three weeks.