An army of police and an urgent court interdict were some of the measures put in place to ensure that there were no disruptions during the University of Fort Hare centenary celebrations in the Eastern Cape town of Alice today.
Yesterday, the university secured an urgent interdict to bar students from disrupting preparations and the proceedings. President Jacob Zuma and his Zimbabwe counterpart, Robert Mugabe – an alumni of the university – were scheduled to address the guests this morning.
Police had their hands full last night trying to dispersing sporadic groups of students burning mattresses. The students were protesting over a lack of financial aid.
Police Minister Nathi Nhleko said they were confident the event would go undeterred and that they had the situation under control.
Nhleko said by last night 133 police members had been deployed at the university and that today the number would be doubled to 266.
A City Press team heard several gun shots last night as police used rubber bullets and stun-grenades to chase students determined to disrupt the celebrations back to their residences.
In what seemed like a game of cat-and-mouse, students would start fires at one end of the university and when police chased them away, another fire would be started elsewhere.
Property was damaged in protests at the institution on Wednesday night. A marquee earmarked to host 1 000 guests in an overflow venue was torched, and a bookshop was looted.
Bulali Rawana, student representative council president, said 14 students were arrested for the violence on Wednesday night. They briefly appeared at the Alice Magistrates’ Court yesterday morning.
The students – three females and 11 male – were charged with theft, public violence and malicious damage to property. They were denied bail and would appear again in court next Friday.
“It’s unfortunate that they were denied bail. It’s something that we are really not happy about ... These students, remember, are first-time offenders. On top of that these students should be writing their exams a week after next week,” Rawana said.
He said it was unfair and a “devilish approach” because the students would not have enough time to prepare for their exams.
“This is not how things are solved. This was a public protest and public violence, we know is not acceptable but we think bail was the least they could have given them,” Rawana said.
He said some students were hospitalised and severely injured after allegedly being shot by police during the riots on Wednesday.
Rawana said there were mixed feelings among students. Some supported the disruptions to put pressure on management to deal with their grievances but others supported a more diplomatic and peaceful engagement.
Sibusiso Ncengwa, manager of student governance at the university, confirmed that the damage included a security gate, the university’s printing hub, the bookshop that was looted, and staff and student centres, which were also damaged.
He said students also tried to enter the sports complex, where the main event would be held. They broke the glass door with bricks and torched a supplier’s marquee.
Ncengwa said since Wednesday’s violent protests the campus had been taken over by the South African Police Service’s Public Order Police and the VIP Protection Unit.
“On our side as the university we went to court to apply for a court interdict preventing any demonstrations and any unlawfulness that might take place on campus. Those are some of the measures we have put in place to ensure that the event goes ahead without a glitch,” Ncengwa said.