“The campus is a place where you are supposed to feel safe, but we are currently living in fear.”
This is what a PhD student at the University of the Free State (UF) says, who does not dare to set foot on the main campus in Bloemfontein again after she was assaulted by a group of protesters on Wednesday.
There have been violent demonstrations on the Bloemfontein, South and Qwaqwa campuses of the UFS since Tuesday. The protesters are mostly students who are unhappy about the delays in NSFAS payments.
The PhD zoology student told RNews on condition of anonymity that she is not the only victim of the protests.
“When I reported the incident to the campus’s security services, there were already a pile of reported cases against the protesters on the investigating officer’s table,” says the student.
The student has also filed a case with the police and is waiting for a case number.
A total of 22 students have already been arrested in connection with the protests.
According to Lt. Col. Thabo Covane, police spokesperson, 14 students, between 19 and 24 years old, were handcuffed on Wednesday around 10:00 on the main campus in Bloemfontein and South Campus, including eight on the main campus and six on the South Campus.
Another eight students were arrested hours later, at around 17:00, on the main campus for allegedly blocking the Nelson Mandela Drive and throwing stones at passing cars.
“Cases of public violence were filed at the Park Road and Kagisanong police stations. The arrested students appeared in the magistrate’s court in Bloemfontein on Friday,” confirms Covane.
The students of the university of the Free State took it to the streets. What led these unrests were the newly implemented eZaga. Buildings are vandalized & 11 students are arrested. pic.twitter.com/lq5uab8Jw8
— Thabiso Mokhatla | ActionSA Youth Forum FS Chair (@MokhatlaTj) August 2, 2023
Students and staff members were allegedly assaulted, threatened and harassed by protesters, while cars and infrastructure were also damaged. Great damage was caused to the main building of the agricultural department, where protesters threw windows.
Furthermore, academic activities are disrupted. The university informed students on Wednesday that the academic program (activities, classes and assignments) will take place from Wednesday to Friday.
According to Lacea Loader, spokeswoman for the university, the situation is currently calm on all three campuses.
“The UFS’s protection services and the police are still on high alert and the situation on the campuses is being closely monitored,” says Loader.
A moment of fear
The PhD student went to campus just before 11:00 on Wednesday. According to her, they have not yet received any correspondence from the university about protests.
“I walked across the bridge and saw a large group of people walking. I thought nothing of it at first. However, when I got closer, I realized that the people looked aggressive. They beat cars. I realized there was trouble here,” says the student.
The student walked across the road in an attempt to avoid the group of people.
“I took out my mobile phone and sent a message to my friend to warn her about the people. That’s when the one man in the group yelled at me not to take a video. I tried to explain to him that I was not taking a video, but typing a message for my girlfriend. I also made him aware that my phone was pointing down to the ground.
“I believe the mobile phone was the trigger which then angered the protesters.”
The man, followed by the group of protesters, ran at the student.
“The man pushed me against the car and a woman with a long stick also walked in my direction. The man and woman, both dressed in EFF shirts, pushed me hard against a car and then squeezed me between two cars.”
According to the student, the woman grabbed her with the stick, while the man shouted at her.
“I couldn’t get out because I was pinned down by the two protesters and the two cars, while they screamed in my ears.”
The student says she saw riot control officers, who the campus appoints during protests, standing about two meters from the incident. She says the officers turned their backs on her.
“I believe they pretended they didn’t see anything.”
Another student, who was part of the group of protesters, jumped in and pulled the man off the student and told her to run away.
“Adrenaline was pumping through my body at that stage. I ran to the officers and screamed at them in a fit, asking why they didn’t help me. They told me they could not help me and then asked: You are safe now, so why do you want to cry?
“Personally, I think this is unacceptable behavior from people who are supposed to keep us safe.”
The student ran to her head of department and burst into tears.
“I was in shock and traumatized. I never thought something like this would happen to me. You always see this kind of stuff on video and hear about it in the media.”
The matter was subsequently reported to the campus security services and the police.
The student, who has been studying at the UFS for the past eight years, says there have been several protests on campus over the years, but this one got completely out of hand.
She claims that security on campus has also been deteriorating in recent years.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get stoned when you drive into the campus. I walk around with a shock stick. Our students live in fear.”
The student is also upset that the university did not inform them about the protests in time.
“I only got an email from the university half an hour after the incident saying that there were protests on campus, but that it was “under control and peaceful”.
The student says they currently do not even know if the protests will continue and when it will be safe to return to campus.
According to Loader, the university assisted the student to also report the incident to the police and arrangements were made for counselling.
“The incident is being investigated and the necessary steps will be taken if the perpetrators are identified,” says Loader.
Shock and disappointment
Prof. Francis Petersen, UFS rector and vice-chancellor, apologized in an online conference on Thursday for the students, staff members and members of the public who were affected by the protests. He said the behavior shown by the protesting students was not in line with the values of the UFS.
He promised that action will be taken against the students involved.
“There will be consequences for the students who engaged in criminal behavior. The UFS’s protection services are working hard to identify the students who were arrested due to the violent behavior and must be disciplinary heard by the university. This will happen as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Petersen.
— René van der Vyver (@ReneVanderVyver) August 2, 2023
According to Petersen, he understands that the students are angry about their NSFAS fees, but does not approve of the way they expressed the anger.
“The way in which they expressed their anger – in the form of vandalism, destruction and in certain aspects criminal, is completely unacceptable. This behavior cannot justify the fact that they did not get their allowances.
“It is also unfair to take their anger out on the university, which has been scrambling to make sure the students get their money.”
Payment of NSFAS grants delayed
NSFAS was still paying grants until the end of June, but since the end of July has been using an online banking service, eZaga, to transfer the fees to students.
“Of the approximately 21,000 students who receive NSFAS grants, the information of nearly 20,000 has already been transferred to the new system. The university helped make sure all the students’ information was put on the new system.”
According to Petersen, the university was only informed on Wednesday that only 11,000 students’ NSFAS fees had been paid.
“A few weeks ago, the university sent a letter to the minister of higher education, dr. Blade Nzimande, wrote to plan a meeting with the 26 vice-chancellors, the head of NSFAS and the chairman of the NSFAS board. This is to discuss the issues regarding the NSFAS payouts. The meeting was scheduled but never took place.”
Petersen says the university is currently in discussions with NSFAS to resolve the problem.
*This report is modified since publication.
— thandiwe. (@thand_yy) August 2, 2023