One of the university's buildings burns as the university orders all students to 'return home' / @syndicalisms via Twitter

Protesters say university leaders have 'arrogantly and unconstitutionally' removed the democratically elected Student Representative Council from office

A university in South Africa has been forced to close one of its campuses after students clashed with security, incited violence, and burned down buildings amid a row over the institution’s student representative council (SRC).

Administrators at the North-West University’s (NWU) Mafikeng campus, in the city of Potchefstroom, have announced in a statement students have been advised to “leave the campus immediately for their own safety and return home.”

Campus spokesman Koos Degenaar added: “It is likely to take a considerable period of time to restore operations. Students will be given at least a month’s notice of the re-opening of the campus.”

According to local media reports, the university’s decision last month to dissolve the SRC and replace it with a new council resulted in students protesting. Images on social media show chaotic scenes as a vehicle and university buildings have been set alight.

Mr Degenaar explained how, on the morning of 24 February, an event was scheduled during which the newly-appointed Campus Student Representative Council (CSRC) was inaugurated. He added: “Just before the proceedings were about to start, a group of students - allegedly from the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFF) and supporters of the dissolved CSRC - started to disrupt the event.”

He said the initial demonstrations had started outside the campus’ Great Hall - where the inauguration was taking place - after which protesters entered inside, and disrupted the event by “singing and shouting” while speakers were addressing the student crowd. 

After the event, the temporarily-suspended CSRC president, Mr Linda (Benz) Mabengwane, arrived on campus and began to speak with a group of students, when on-campus security dispersed the crowd, leading to clashes between both parties.

Mr Degenaar said security had to use teargas and rubber bullets “to get the situation under control.” He added: “The students were pelting security with stones, which led to further reactions by them.

“In the late afternoon, the situation flared up again and incidents were reported where students set fire to a motorcycle belonging to a staff member as well as a trailer belonging to the security company. It was also reported the staff cafeteria was looted.”

Students then went on to allegedly set fire to other buildings on campus, with the administration building being the main target. Mr Degenaar continued: “This building was completely destroyed, along with all official records. Damages are estimated to run into millions of rands.”

The spokesman said he believed arrests had been made, but that “no formal account could be given in this regard yet.”

He also dispelled rumours that a student was killed after on-campus security intervened. He did, however, say it was suspected that students were hurt during the clashes.

Responding to the allegations, EFF - which says its basic programme is the “complete overthrow of a neoliberal anti-black system and the realisation of students’ power” - released an online statement and said the university management “has no-one to blame but themselves.”

The group’s spokesman, Peter Keetse, said: “Following the protest, we must say they have invited anarchy when it was not necessary. They have arrogantly and unconstitutionally removed the democratically elected Student Representative Council from office.

“The wrath of students of NWU comes after the management’s decision to appoint its own interim SRC. The students demanded their legitimate president Linda ‘benz’ Mabengwane whom they have elected in the previous elections.”