South Africa police chief says he ‘can’t rule out’ student fatalities as fees protests continue

Tuesday sees second day of violent clashes at a Johannesburg university

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The Independent Online

South Africa’s most senior policeman has refused to rule out the possibility of more fatalities at university campuses across the country, citing the “irresponsible” actions of students protesting over increased fees for higher education.

Heavily armed riot police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators for a second consecutive day on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand, commonly known as Wits, in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Just over a week ago, a Wits cleaner died after protesters let off a fire extinguisher in student accommodation. Though the cause of death is yet to be confirmed, in a statement the university suggested the cleaner likely died after inhaling fumes.

Acting national police chief, Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane, told reporters in Pretoria: “I am not going to put my neck on the block and say there will never be a loss of life because you see how irresponsible people [protesters] are. 

“The situation continues to escalate so it is a situation we must all manage. The SA Police Service [SAPS] will do their best to de-escalate the situation.”

On Monday, police deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon against large groups of students as violence spilled into surrounding city streets.

Wits said classes had resumed on Tuesday despite attempts by students to stage a total shutdown, but further clashes broke out when students hurled rocks at a central building and police fired rubber bullets to disperse them. 

The weeks-long unrest across South African campuses began after the government said it would allow universities to increase fees in the next academic year.

Protesters say the country’s stark wealth division along race lines means the measure will hit black students hardest, thereby stymying attempts to improve equality. They have not been placated by a government pledge to cover the fee increases for poorer students.

And Lieutenant General Phahlane said it had become apparent that the protests were now about more than just the issue of fees. He said the #FeesMustFall movement had been hijacked along political lines, and that “part of the agenda of those who have infiltrated is to drive us to a point where someone is killed by police, so that they could prove a point”.

“These are supposed to be places where people go and learn, are developed to be better leaders of tomorrow but unfortunately it seems as if we’re breeding a crop of leaders that this country is going to regret,” he said.

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