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South Africa’s University Protests Show Racial Division

JOHANNESBURG ― In a racially charged scene, a mostly Black group of South African student protesters on Wednesday confronted White students who want demonstrations for free education to stop so they can complete the academic year.

The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg said “many racist remarks” were made when demonstrators disrupted a march there by several dozen students, most of them White, who want to return to class. Video of the confrontation shows one angry Black protester saying allegedly diffident police did not break up the march because its participants were White, in contrast to a campus clash a day earlier between police and protesters.

Since last month, sometimes violent demonstrations for free education have occurred at some South African universities whose students are mostly Black. Protesters say they are the victims of economic inequities and a legacy of “White privilege” in universities and other institutions dating from White minority rule, which was dismantled in 1994.

The sensitive topic of race relations is coming to the fore as more White students express their views. A group of mostly White students also rallied Wednesday for the resumption of classes at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the city of Port Elizabeth. They said Black students who want to return to school are not speaking up for fear of reprisals.

The University of Cape Town closed Wednesday because of student protests.

While South Africa won praise for reconciliation efforts among racial factions when apartheid ended, many Black South Africans express frustration that they have failed to reap the economic benefits they expected from democracy. The income of the average white household is six times that of a Black household, according to 2011 census data.

The government has said it will cover 2017 fee increases for poor university students. Protesters rejected that concession, though some university managements say the majority of students and faculty don’t want to lose the academic year even if they support the idea of accessible education for all.

“We are not against the ‘Fees Must Fall’ protests,” said Stuart Young, a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits University.

“We just do not agree with the methods that they’re using to intimidate and bully and scare students from attending their lectures, to scare students from coming onto campus even,” he told Jacaranda News, a South African media organization.

Young and other White students stayed mostly silent as they were harangued during their rally calling for classes to resume. The university hopes to re-open on Monday.

“Do you know how we suffered?” a Black protester said, pointing his finger for emphasis. He was referring to decades of racial oppression under White rulers that denied basic freedoms to the Black majority.

About 63 percent of the 37,000 students at Wits University are Black, while 20 percent are White, according to the university. The rest belong to other ethnic groups.

In a statement, Wits University said several people were “making racist and defamatory remarks on multiple platforms including at public gatherings and in the media,” and that it is investigating “a voice clip that has been circulating on social media inciting violence against particular race groups.”

The audio clip refers to possible violence against white students.

Three old plaques on the university’s main plaza pay tribute to students, graduates and staff who died in the two world wars, an era when Whites dominated South Africa. Graffiti on one plaque includes an expletive and then the word “whites.”

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