Two University of KwaZulu-Natal lecturers almost found themselves behind bars on Monday after police swooped on a peaceful meeting at the Pietermaritzburg campus.
The arrests caused widespread outrage in the student community, which later on Monday afternoon resulted in two attempted arson attacks at prominent buildings on the campus.
The meeting — which saw about 50 students, university staff and community leaders gather on the Main campus lawns — lasted all of 20 minutes before police brought it to a halt.
The meeting, which was called by members of the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) and activists in the Profs4Protest group, sought to act as a platform for an open discussion about the #FeesMustFall campaign.
One of the topics on the table was free, quality higher education through the “decolonising” of the curriculum. The group also petitioned for the immediate release of arrested students and the “demilitarisation” of campuses.
They also extended an invitation to UKZN Vice-Chancellor, Dr Albert Van Jaarsveld.
In a responding letter from his office, Van Jaarsveld curtly turned down the invitation, warning that gatherings would not be permitted. “The university will only negotiate with lawfully recognised staff and student structures and not ad hoc groupings or collectives.
“Our common purpose at this time should be to prepare our students for their forthcoming examinations,” the letter read.
“We appeal to the student leadership and staff to concentrate their efforts in this endeavour, rather than dialogue sessions which in themselves may become contested terrain.”
Just before midday yesterday, the group had gathered under a tree on the Main campus and were cheerfully making placards, handing out T-shirts and hoisting up banners when police interjected.
A contingent of about 20 officers calmly approached the group and one officer told them the meeting was in violation of the court interdict.
Then the officers sprung their trap, grabbing students, who fled in all directions. Two staff members, one of whom was UKZN theology and development programme director and senior lecturer Dr Clint le Bruyns, were also taken into custody.
The pair argued that the university’s court interdict does not cover staff members, and states instead that students are the only group banned from mass protest action.
Both staff members were released on a warning as groups of students, who had scattered across the lawns, hurled insults at officers from a safe distance.
UKZN spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said stones were also thrown at police officers after they announced that the group was violating the university’s court interdict. “An unidentified man who is neither a member of staff nor a student was injured. He was taken to hospital by ambulance,” Seshoka said.
Speaking to The Witness on Monday, Le Bruyns said most of the students arrested on Monday were “just walking by” and fell victims to the police’s “targeted campaign”.
“We were doing artwork and handing out questionnaires and the police arrested us with no warning. We were not disrupting anyone,” Le Bruyns said.
“We were arrested on the basis of violating the court interdict but this only applies to students, not to staff and members of the public.”
A few hours later, it is believed a small group of students set fire to a table on the second level of the Student Union building.
Shortly afterwards, a stack of books were set alight in the main library.
Security guards were quick to extinguish both fires before any major damage was caused.
Meanwhile, at the Pinetown Magistrate’s Court, 25-year-old student leader Lukhanyo “Banda” Mtshingane was granted bail of R1 000 after he was arrested in Pietermaritzburg last week.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Natasha Kara said Mtshingane’s case was postponed to November 8.