by Bronwen Dachs
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) — Violence and vandalism at South African universities are reactions to inequality in the country, said Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria, spokesman for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
At least four university campuses have been turned into battlegrounds with protests by students who last year, after nationwide marches, won their demand for no increases in fees in 2016.
North-West University in Mafikeng has shut down indefinitely after students burned an administration compound that included a science center Feb. 24. The students were protesting the suspension of a student council leader.
“The science center was also used by schools in the region that do not have their own laboratories,” and thousands of younger schoolchildren, as well as university students, will be affected, Archbishop Slattery said in a Feb. 29 telephone interview from Pretoria.
At the University of Pretoria, protesting students are demanding to be taught in languages other than Afrikaans, which they identify with apartheid. Other universities where studies have been disrupted through violence include the University of Cape Town and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.
The objection to being taught in Afrikaans “has a lot to do with a feeling among South Africans that their languages are pushed aside,” Archbishop Slattery said.
“Very few white South Africans have made the effort to learn even a few words” of local African languages, he said.
“There is institutional racism throughout the country, which is still dominated by white culture,” he said.
Apartheid, South Africa’s system of racial segregation that ended in 1994, “was successful in separating people racially, economically, geographically and linguistically,” Archbishop Slattery said. “Integration is happening in churches and other places, but the pace of change is too slow.”
“While inequality is felt acutely at universities and this is being articulated with force, it is present throughout South Africa and needs to be resolved by the whole country,” the archbishop said.
There is a worrying lack of strong leadership, he said, noting that “it seems that the country’s leaders are trying to catch up” with events on campuses.
Also, the “radical students seem to be leaderless,” which makes for a “very serious and volatile situation,” he said.
The student protesters’ “lack of leadership could explain the burning of paintings” depicting white people and the gasoline-bombing of the vice chancellor’s office at the University of Cape Town Feb. 16, he said.
Black South Africans’ “anger at inequality and injustices has been bubbling for a long time and rose to the surface at universities last year,” Archbishop Slattery said.
South African President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence at universities in a Feb. 25 statement, which said that “the burning of university buildings at a time when we are prioritizing the education of our youth is inexplicable and can never be condoned.”
Zuma agreed in October to student demands not to increase fees in 2016 and said that the government would spend more to help poor students meet the cost of higher education.
Archbishop Slattery said he had accompanied a large group of students late last year to the Union Buildings, the seat of national government in Pretoria, where they had expected that Zuma would address them.
“The president sent a message to the students but did not come to meet them,” he said.