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South African Students Clash With Police At Education Protests

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

More than two decades after South Africa became a democracy with a majority-black government, students have been clashing with police on university campuses. The protesters are no longer demanding freedom but rather a free education, something the government says is not possible. They call their movement Fees Must Fall. Peter Granitz reports from Johannesburg.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Classes were set to resume last week at Wits University in Johannesburg after a two-week suspension. Fees Must Fall protesters sought to make sure that didn't happen. Hundreds marched through campus using an apartheid-era liberation chant to rally support.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

GRANITZ: Teams of protesters marched into classrooms, disrupting teachers and intimidating students. One of those who fled the chaos was second-year chemistry student Mandisa Radebe.

MANDISA RADEBE: We were sitting in class. One person walked in, and they disrupted the class. Half the students left. And then the lecturer was like, no. It's OK, relax. And then another person came in and warned us that there's a whole mob now. So it's kind of dangerous. And we can't continue.

GRANITZ: Students have been protesting since September 20, following the education minister's announcement that universities could raise tuition up to 8 percent. Protests at many universities have been peaceful. But at the University of Cape Town, protesters lobbed petrol bombs. Fire destroyed a library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. And students at Rhodes University put up burning barricades on campus streets.

President Jacob Zuma says the damage has cost the government more than $40 million. That's on top of the $1 billion, Zuma says, the government absorbed last year after similar protests forced a tuition freeze. Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the government caved and set a bad precedent.

RALPH MATHEKGA: They were caught unprepared by the students, and they gave in. The problem is that once the students begin to taste such kind of victory, they will keep on demanding more.

GRANITZ: Government subsidizes tuition for poorer students. But undergraduate fees can be as high as $5,000 a year. That puts it out of reach for many black students. Apartheid ended in 1994, but black South African incomes lag significantly behind those of white South Africans. Demonstrators say they won't stop until university fees are dropped.

ANZIO JACOBS: We cannot conclude the academic year without a commitment from government.

GRANITZ: That's Anzio Jacobs, a Fees Must Fall leader at Wits University. He says the government needs to commit to free education. At a press conference following late-night negotiations with students and mediators, Wits University Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said the majority of students want to go back to class, and it's a vocal minority preventing them from doing so.

ADAM HABIB: The long-term consequence is dramatic. If we lose this year, and if other universities lose this year, 1,600 doctors won't go into the public service. The economy would do - deal with countless fewer accountants, engineers and all of these things.

GRANITZ: On Friday, students gathered on the lawn below Wits University's Great Hall. Under a searing midday sun, they sang struggle songs from the apartheid era, the time before most of them were born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in foreign language).

GRANITZ: First-year student Deelan Jeran, who pays about $3,700 a year in tuition, says free education is the latest struggle in a country with an unequal past.

DEELAN JERAN: We don't want free education. We need it. The country needs it.

GRANITZ: It's unlikely free education for all will come any time soon. And it's unclear whether current students will actually finish this academic year, which was set to end in November. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.