Protests force week-long shutdown at South African universities

October 5, 2016 3:35 AM EDT

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Clashes between police and students protesting about the cost of education forced South Africa's Wits and Cape Town universities to suspend classes on Wednesday for the second time in less than a month.

The cost of university education, prohibitive for many black students, has become a symbol of the inequalities that endure in South Africa more than two decades after the end of apartheid.

Protests first erupted last year, then eased off as the government froze fee increases and set up a commission to look into the education funding system. But unrest has boiled up again since the commission said on Sept. 19 that fees would continue to rise.

A spokeswoman for the University of the Witwatersrand, known as Wits, and which reopened on Monday after protests last month forced a shutdown, said late on Tuesday that classes would be canceled until Oct. 10.

"We have agreed to suspend the academic program," Shirona Patel said.

Police on Tuesday fired stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas after students calling for free education at the Johannesburg campus threw stones at police and flipped one vehicle. The university said some protesters had earlier pulled lecturers out of their offices as they prepared to restart classes after the shutdown called on Sept. 20.

Wits, which has been the epicenter of the protests, conducted a poll last week asking students if they wanted go back to class.

Some 77 percent of the 21,730 students who voted supported the resumption of lessons but clashes between students over whether classes should resume were reported on Wednesday.

The University of Cape Town (UCT), which had hired private security guards to help police the campus, said it would be shut down for the rest of the week due to safety concerns.

UCT spokeswoman Pat Lucas said that protesters had in the early hours of Wednesday attacked private security guards, broken into some buildings and started fires. Eight students had been arrested in the preceding day's violence.

(Reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng and Dinky Mkhize in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town,; Writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Catherine Evans)



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