South Africa's college protests are out of control

A protester runs past a baricade during a protest over planned increases in tuition fees outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, October 23, 2015. South African police fired stun grenades and used water cannon on Friday to douse fires lit by students protesting on the grounds of the buildings where President Jacob Zuma has his offices.
Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The protest began over student leadership. It ended with students shot at by security guards, two buildings burned to the ground, and a college campus closed indefinitely.

The incident this week at North-West University in Mahikeng, a town near South Africa's border with Botswana, is the latest in increasingly violent student protests — and heavy handed security response — over issues ranging from tuition fees to student housing and racism.

Demonstrations began on South African campuses in 2015 over the lack of "transformation," meaning, mostly white professors as well as colonial-era statues and symbols. Later in the year, protests flared again as students challenged a planned hike in tuition fees, earning widespread support — and a pledge by government to halt the fee increase. 

More from GlobalPost: After massive protests, South Africa freezes tuition hikes

But this year, student protests have taken on a different, more dangerous tone.

Last week a protest over a shortage of dormitory space at the University of Cape Town ended with students rampaging through college buildings, tearing paintings from walls and throwing them on a bonfire.

At the University of the Free State, a protest by black students during a rugby match turned into a brawl after angry white students reacted violently.

The latest incident, in Mahikeng, began over the inauguration of a new student council, which some students complained had been chosen by the university administration.

Angry students clashed with security guards and set fire to several buildings on campus, burning down a science center and an administration building.

Students living in residences have been told to leave the campus, and it is unclear when the college will re-open.

The vice-chancellors of two top South African colleges warned in an opinion piece that the country's universities "are at a precipice," and called for higher education to be protected.

"Our universities are a microcosm of our society and broadly reflect the tense political climate in the country, the racism that has gripped South Africans in recent months, all exacerbated in the lead up to local government elections this year," wrote Adam Habib and Sizwe Mabizela

"But if we allow this to continue without challenging it, the free and safe space of our universities will be compromised, and our institutions will be irreparably harmed."

On Friday a group of prominent South Africans, including a former Constitutional Court judge and the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, offered to provide mediation and conflict resolution to colleges and student movements.

“We have now reached a crisis point that compels us to act to help neutralize what is happening at universities," said Yvonne Mokgoro, the former judge. 

"I urge students, management and rectors to show restraint and use our services to curb the levels of conflict."