Chaos engulfed NMMU’s south campus in Port Elizabeth yesterday as students and police clashed in a series of incidents, leading to the arrest of 29 students and a further two people, believed to be staff members.
Police clashed with students from as early as 8am, using teargas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and a water cannon to try to quell the #FeesMustFall protest.
And while police were seen taking potshots at isolated protesters, students threw rocks.
The drama erupted along University Way in Summerstrand, with the students scattering quickly when police opened fire with rubber bullets and the water cannon.
Students took cover in bushes and used bin covers as shields.
Others tried to barricade themselves inside the main campus building, Embizweni, but were dragged out and chucked inside a police truck.
Police arrested 23 people they had pulled out of the building. The other eight had been arrested earlier in the day.
The university has been struggling to open its doors after an almost month-long closure following nationwide protests calling for free education.
NMMU was meant to resume academic activities on Tuesday but protesting #FeesMustFall students have vowed to ensure that it stays closed.
NMMU spokeswoman Debbie Derry said the university was surprised by this week’s protests.
“Unfortunately, there have been disruptions … but we are committed to continue with the academic year,” she said.
“We know that because we have lost so much time, we have to get back into the classroom.
“A few lectures took place on various campuses early in the morning but were abandoned when the protesters intimidated the other students. The safety of our students is a huge concern and with the arrest of students we hope this will be a turning point which could result in us bringing it back under control,” Derry said.
“The last two days have been more difficult than anticipated.
“Notwithstanding, a number of lectures have taken place along with other forms of learning, and the university remains open.”
Derry said engagement between lecturers and students had increased and academic recovery plans had been enhanced.
“The university remains resolute in keeping its campuses open to save the 2016 academic year as the alternative of shutting down is far too dire to contemplate for all of us,” Derry said.
“We are saddened that following today’s disruptions, 31 students [and staff] have been arrested.”
After police clashed with the protesters along University Way, about 200 students gathered at The Madiba Shirt sculpture on the south campus.
Addressing the crowd at about 10am, #FeesMustFall leader Nathi Dwayi said the movement was done singing and talking.
“We are dealing with police now,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure there are no police on campus … each one grab a rock,” Dwayi said to loud cheers.
Asked later about the way forward, he said: “I have no confidence that there will be an end in sight as long as we have police on campus because they are always escalating the attacks.”
Dwayi said if the police were called off, protesters would be willing to start mediation again.
After Dwayi addressed the students, they tried to make their way back to University Way but were intercepted by police, who again fired rubber bullets.
They were forced to take cover in Embizweni, where they barricaded themselves inside the entrance.
But police used teargas and rubber bullets to break through and dragged the students from the building.
One of the arrested students begged her friend to tell her family about her arrest.
“We were at Embizweni. They [police] walked in, frightened us with guns, swore at us and also manhandled us,” the student said from the back of a police truck.
“This colonel dragged me while I was having an asthma attack and threw me to the floor. “It was so embarrassing.” Another standoff ensued at about 11am and police eventually used rubber bullets, forcing the students to flee into the Unitas male residence.
By this point, a fire at the nature conservancy had flared up.
The day progressed with running protests until 2pm.
The students eventually jumped into taxis on University Way and left.
Police spokeswoman Brigadier Sally de Beer said the students had been arrested for public violence, including the continuous stoning of police.
Lawyer Zolile Ngqeza, who is representing 29 of those arrested, said they would be spending the night behind bars and were expected to appear in the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court today.
“We are looking if they can’t be released on a warning, but that will only be known [today],” Ngqeza said.
He said two of those arrested were staff members, but this could not be confirmed. NMMU SRC president Nicholas Nyathi said the mediation process with various parties had resumed yesterday.
“We are also trying to engage with university management to devise a new academic calendar.
“The way police and students are conducting themselves is unbecoming and this is harming innocent students in the process.”
Concerned Association of Parents and Others for Tertiary Education at Universities (Captu) committee member Robert Griebenow said they were looking at alternative measures to reopen the institution.
“We have the court order instructing us to mediate, and we might consider meeting with the #FeesMustFall movement students and counsel to reach some sort of solution.”
Griebenow said he hoped lectures could resume while negotiations were under way.