Stellenbosch students peppersprayed, manhandled in #FeesMustFall protest

 Students were sprayed with pepper spray during a sit-in a Stellenbosch University. PHOTO: Kamva Somdyala/Twitter
Students were sprayed with pepper spray during a sit-in a Stellenbosch University. PHOTO: Kamva Somdyala/Twitter

Students at Stellenbosch University were forcibly removed from the main library today following a protest against fees.

Private security personnel, from Pro Events Security Services, removed students who had been occupying the JS Gericke Library.

In videos sent to City Press, the personnel can be seen pushing students who were trying to keep the door open. After a lengthy struggle, the security used pepper spray to disperse the crowd

A letter from the university’s chief operating officer, Professor Leopoldt van Huyssteen, was posted on Twitter earlier today. In the letter Van Huysteen warned students who were occupying the library that they were in contravention of the Trespass Act and would be charged if they did not leave.

“You are hereby instructed to vacate the building and leave the premises in an orderly manner within a period of five minutes from delivery of this notice,” van Huysteen wrote.

Maxine Bezuidenhout was a student at Stellenbosch University but left in 2014. She is a student at Unisa now but she was present at the sit-in and witnessed the scuffle between students and private security. Bezuidenhout said students were unhappy with the letter sent to them.

“This is an apartheid act that they are referring to, so students said no to complying with it,” said Bezuidenhout.

Students occupied the library from Monday this week in protest of the impending fee increase. Using the hashtag #SFMFDefiance (Stellenbosch Fees Must Fall), students planned to stay in the library until the university vice chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, met with them to discuss free education.

“All students want is an opportunity to speak to the vice chancellor but they are not being allowed to engage properly,” said a staff member, who asked not to be named.

She said the university insisted on engaging student leadership but that this was a problem because there wasn’t enough representation of black students.

In a media statement, the university said it would be having a discussion with students today and that the dean of students had been engaging with students all week.

De Villiers said the university supported free higher education for “financially needy, academically deserving students”.

“No vice-chancellor wants conflict on his or her campus, and it is regrettable that there has been friction. However, we are doing our utmost to resolve the situation,” he said.

Bezuidenhout said students had been trying to keep the door open while the private security members looked on. She said one of the personnel said “let’s move” which is when the security started to “shove, kick and grope” students. Bezuidenhout filmed the incident.

The staff member said a group of concerned members of faculty were trying to provide support for students and moving to help them in getting a response from the university but they had failed.

“We’ve sent countless lengthy emails to management to try and get the university to engage in an open and transparent way but it hasn’t helped. We don’t have the power to make this happen and it feels like our backs are against the wall. Our university is not learning anything; we are back to where we were last year,” she said

The staff member added that the university had closed the library even though students were sitting “passively”. She said management was unable to engage students on a critical level and this was a problem in higher education as a whole.

“Their response is incredibly violent. Not just for students but for faculty too,” she said.

According to the university, however, the students were stopping other students from getting into the building this morning.

“As these actions infringe on the rights of other students who need to access the library services, the University could not allow the situation to continue indefinitely,” the statement said.

One of the students collapsed in the library but according to Bezuidenhout, Pro Events personnel kept her inside the library. She said the student was dehydrated but food and drinks were not allowed in the library.

According to the university she was taken to hospital.

“The [university] ambulance and a nursing sister provided a service on the scene and they were also contacted to assist a student in the library who required urgent medical attention. She was taken to hospital where she is being treated,” it said.

Bezuidenhout said she could not tell City Press at this stage what the next step would be for the #SFMFDefiance campaign but said the “fire was reignited”

“It’s quiet now but definitely not over,” she said.


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