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Students Clash With Police In South Africa Protests

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In South Africa, protests are raging at university campuses. Across the country, classes have been canceled, buildings have been set on fire. Police are clashing with students and, in some cases, arresting them. The protests are about tuition and also about race. That's according to Fasiha Hassan. She's one of the protest leaders, a law student in Johannesburg at the prestigious University of Witwatersrand. That's an epicenter of the protests. When we reached her on Friday, she was at a police station, helping students who'd been arrested.

FASIHA HASSAN: We had three students who were arrested for singing struggle songs. You know, students in South Africa sing songs that our mothers and fathers sort of sang during the anti-apartheid movement. So those three students were singing these songs. They were arrested for singing. There are students who are being arrested for public violence, incitement of violence, illegal gathering. There is, in fact, one charge, at least, of malicious damage to property.

KELLY: What exactly is your movement fighting for?

HASSAN: The biggest call is for free, quality and decolonized education. There have been huge issues of access to education, particularly higher education.

KELLY: We should explain in South Africa, many students do attend university and pay no tuition. Your argument is that there should be no tuition for any student. It should be entirely free.

HASSAN: Yes. So government funding is there, but it is not sufficient. And I think I must give some context here to say the basic education system in South Africa, particularly the public one, is of a very low quality. So students who come from a poor, disadvantaged background are not getting enough of a quality education on a sort of high school level or primary school level and thus are not able to gain access into university.

Now, let's say someone does even gain access into a university - which, by the way, is an exception. Now, say they do. They're in the city for the very first time. Accommodation is unlikely to be covered, so that student is likely to sleep in the library, in a computer lab. They don't have money every month, so we've had to start a feeding scheme. And that student ends up failing academically, not because they don't work hard - by virtue of how this system is structured, that they aren't able to get the support they require and thus they aren't able to perform academically.

KELLY: I'm looking at a picture of classes being disrupted at the University of - I mean, the current situation means that a lot of universities are closed. Classes are not happening. Nobody's getting an education. How is that in anybody's interest?

HASSAN: We all want to go back to the academic program. But we must understand the urgency and the need for this free and quality education. And I think perhaps I haven't made myself clear in saying that there are hundreds of thousands of students who have their livelihoods on the line by virtue of the fact that they've been born poor and the fact that they've been born black because the system is also structurally racist. And we still (unintelligible) inherited this system from apartheid. We inherited this system from colonial powers. It was never designed to educate the masses of this country. It was designed to educate the white minority.

KELLY: You mentioned apartheid ended 22 years ago. It ended back in 1994. May I ask - how old were you then?

HASSAN: I'm 22. I'm one of the so-called born-frees.

KELLY: The born-frees.

HASSAN: And I think that's why this student movement is so important in South Africa's history, that you are seeing born-frees in a university space saying that thank you to our parents and our grandparents for fighting for liberation, but we are most certainly not done in ensuring that the status quo has changed, in ensuring that there's equality, that in fact the baton has merely been handed over to us to ensure that in a democratic South Africa, we continue to fight to equalize the playing field.

KELLY: Fasiha Hassan. She is secretary general of the Student Representative Council at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Fasiha Hassan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HASSAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: After we spoke to her, more students were arrested for throwing rocks and for arson, students accused police of shooting rubber bullets, and the university imposed a curfew. A university spokeswoman says police are on the scene. Anyone caught in the act of disrupting classes using stink bombs or any other weapons may be arrested. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.