Written by Staff Writer by Kimberly Whittaker, CNN
Anger is growing over South Africa’s decision to bar university students from travelling by Omicron, as a wave of protests against President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government intensified across the country.
Just days after the Omicron barriers were temporarily taken down in the province of Mpumalanga, the government has reinstated the sweeping travel ban, which it claims is necessary to stem criminality.
“The current situation on the roads, and particularly in Mpumalanga, requires that the government protects the law-abiding public from the blatant crimes being committed by criminal elements that have infiltrated our college campuses,” said Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Zapiro Sabayuni, in a statement.
The travel ban aims to increase public safety
and as such, the transport minister, Liwabo Majola, reiterated that Omicron restrictions would remain in place.
However, University of the Witwatersrand student leader, Alex Mashilo, told CNN he could not understand why the travel ban was necessary in the first place. “I think the government’s travel ban is a way of controlling the population … against protests and against the right to protest,” he said.
Protests continue on South Africa’s campuses, with thousands of students shutting down University of the Witwatersrand on Thursday.
In response to the students’ actions, a total of 200,000 people attended a “United for Change” march on Thursday, according to a South African government spokesman.
“He must go”
The demonstrations came after riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons on protesters at the University of the Witwatersrand on Monday. While some students were reportedly arrested and questioned by police, demonstrators were also reportedly pepper sprayed.
On Friday, the university held a meeting where it voted in favor of a three-hour shutdown on Monday. The move was made to protect the university “from lawlessness and violence.”
“From what happened last Monday we can’t imagine it would be normal to allow students to come out onto campus without protection,” Mashilo said.
The protests follow a series of university strikes in recent months in which lecturers have demanded improved wages. Many protest leaders had previously worked for debt-burdened universities and their manifesto demands included free education.
“We are asking Ramaphosa to prioritise free education because this whole situation has been created by him and his governing class,” Mashilo said.
Dozens of students were allegedly injured in violent clashes with riot police, as they shut down the University of the Witwatersrand on Monday. Credit: IMX / Alamy Stock Photo
But after considering the student response, the university has decided to shut down for three hours as a short-term response. Mashilo said the students would only be allowed back into the campus in the morning “if we remain peaceful.”
“Students must understand their rights and recognize that the old rulers want to deprive them of their education and depriving them of education could potentially cause other students to explode.
“Therefore students must mobilize and avoid this incident by the most peaceful means possible, which is voting with their feet,” he said.
Chico Elizabeth Mbulu, 24, who was among some of the 100,000 protesters in Johannesburg on Thursday, said the travel ban was another piece of evidence of Ramaphosa’s apathy toward the cause of poor students.
He noted that around 40,000 people protested in the Port Elizabeth regional hub of KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday.
“President Ramaphosa does not show any empathy towards us,” he said. “He only cares about his own image because he believes that with that image everything will be all right.”
Mbulu added that he hoped universities would do all they could to reopen for the rest of the semester.
“We need the university to help us,” he said. “The students need help and we want them to help us.”