Student protests: A violent tug-of-war

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Three organisations at the forefront of violent student protests this week deny a race war is under way, instead fingering the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who they say are using the students ahead of local government elections.

Afrikaner civil society organisation AfriForum, Afrikaner political party Front Nasionaal and the SA Students Congress (Sasco) all claim that protests at the universities of Pretoria and Free State are not about race but language.

The three say they are looking for an amicable solution to the language policy – on whether Afrikaans is to be used as a medium of instruction – but progress has been halted by the EFF, who they insist are inciting the violence.

EFF national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said this week’s events at campuses around the country was not a race war but “a legitimate protest struggle around transformation”.

In an about-turn, Sasco – which last month called for protests to stop, along with ANC-aligned student body the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – are now calling for their structures to engage in “campaigns” at Afrikaans universities, where there are issues of racism.

Sasco president Thabo Moloja says they were “misunderstood”.

“The protests during registration were about ... not allowing for it to proceed and our call then was for students to register and get into the system. We were not saying protests must end altogether. If there are issues of residence or a language policy, of course we must protest.”

But a highly placed source in the PYA told City Press that Sasco is out to regain prominence at student protests because the EFF has gained momentum on campuses, and that the PYA is scrambling for visibility.

Moloja said protests this week had to do with university managements’ failure to engage on the language policy at Pretoria university, also known as Tuks, and on a broken promise to insource at the University of the Free State (UFS).

“Where there are issues we will lead protests and other engagement, but ... not with the opposition. We committed a tactical blunder by having a coalition of student organisations in protests this week. We use different tactics. We want dialogue, with protest as the last resort. The EFF student command sees protest as their first and only option,” he said.

Ndlozi refuted the claim that the EFF were the aggressors and were using the student protests for prominence ahead of local government elections. “Elections are fought in wards not universities. We are there because our universities need to transform,” he said

Moloja said the fight between UFS students was racist in nature and called for vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen to step down.

Meanwhile, AfriForum Jeug (Youth) national coordinator Morne Mostert said: “We are not the aggressors. We simply want proper consultation with university management around the language policy. We do not only want to protect Afrikaans, we are also promoting Sepedi at Tuks because we believe in mother tongue education for everyone.

“We are officially distancing ourselves from Front Nasionaal and their actions,” he said, alleging that was the party responsible for racially abusing black students this week.

Francois Cloete of Front Nasionaal said his forefathers built Tuks and were promised by FW de Klerk in 1994 that at least four universities would be reserved for them. “This is not a race war but the EFF is trying to make it one. What comes next after removing Afrikaans?”

Widespread plans to protest this week across the country were foiled by Varsity Cup organisers, who postponed all inter-university rugby matches set to take place this week, citing safety concerns following violence at a game at UFS on Monday.

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