Library torched in ‘Nazi-style’ book burning after student 'raped by police' in South Africa university fee protests

Students are protesting against higher education fees, which they say discriminate along race lines

Adam Withnall
Africa Correspondent
Wednesday 07 September 2016 15:49 BST
The historic library, which contained many rare volumes, was gutted by fire
The historic library, which contained many rare volumes, was gutted by fire (Dasen Thathiah/eNCA)

South African politicians have united to condemn the burning of one of the country’s finest law libraries during protests over university fees, in which students say a female classmate has been raped.

The book burning was likened to the activities of the youth wing of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany in a statement by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Hundreds of students ran riot across the campus of University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) on Monday night and Tuesday, part of a series of protests across South African universities at the cost of higher education, which some say is perpetuating white privilege in the country.

The clashes at UKZN have been particularly pronounced, and relations between students and the authorities worsened when it emerged one female student reported she had been raped by a police officer at the Pietermaritzburg campus on Monday.

A UKZN spokesman told South African media a case of sexual assault had been reported to the university. “The alleged incident is reported to have happened off campus. It is under investigation,” he said.

Videos have also emerged showing police opening fire on students with rubber bullets during the day on campus, and on Tuesday the university cancelled all lectures and events in a bid to calm the unrest.

But while the damage on Monday was contained to six torched vehicles, the destruction of the library on Tuesday night has seen public sympathy for the protesters tested.

A law lecturer at UKZN, Franaaz Khan, told TMG Digital that while fire fighters had managed to bring the fire under control‚ the faculty had lost priceless material, including rare books dating back to the foundations of modern-day South African law in the 17th century.

“Many date back to early Roman-Dutch time,” she said. “Some are rare as well. It is devastating to watch the library in which you spent many hours as a student burn up in flames.”

Protesters and supporters of the students have hit back at those who have condemned the library arson, suggesting more concern should surround the alleged rape and an incident where a female student was reportedly shot in the leg with live ammunition.

In its statement, the ANC said it condemned “the destruction of university property and the intimidation and harassment of university leaders”.

“The burning of books and university infrastructure is reprehensible and has no connection to the calls for free education for the poor,” the ANC said.

“The burning of books is a symbolic act of anti-intellectualism. In the 1930s the German Student Union, a Nazi structure, ran a book-burning campaign, targeting books written by Jews, liberals and communists. It was a prelude to fascism and the Holocaust.

“Attacking university property and harassing university leaders is illegal and a crime. Unlawful conduct cannot be justified by the mistaken belief that burning books is an attack on white monopoly capital.”

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) called for “law enforcement to make sure those responsible for this arson face the full might of the law”.

DA councillor Nicole Graham posted online: “Seeing pictures of UKZN's law library‚ where many of us studied for years‚ gutted by fire is absolutely heartbreaking and infuriating.”

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