CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African riot police fired stun grenades on Wednesday at hundreds of protesting students who stormed the parliament precinct in Cape Town to try to disrupt the reading of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s interim budget.
As chaos erupted around the building, Nene, standing calmly at the podium inside the chamber, read his speech, which gave a gloomy outlook for Africa’s most advanced economy.
The speech was delayed by 45 minutes as MPs from the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party raised questions of order, arguing the budget should be delayed because of student protests over planned increases in 2016 tuition fees.
Scuffles broke out as parliamentary security guards were called in to forcibly remove the EFF members.
At that point, hundreds of students demanding the government scrap the planned tuition hike stormed the parliament compound.
“We were pushed back by police with force. The stun grenade was shot right next to my ear. I still have the buzzing in my ear,” said Motheo Lengoasa, a student at University of Cape Town, as others chanted and sang songs demanding lower fees.
Earlier she had lain prostate on the ground in front of the entrance to the National Assembly where Nene was speaking.
“This looks like 1976 all over again,” she said, referring to the Soweto uprising where police killed at least 69 students who were protesting plans to teach them in Afrikaans.
When higher education minister Blade Nzimande tried to address the students, they waved placards saying, “Fees must fall, education for all” and “Blade must go.”
President Jacob Zuma, who wore a stony expression through Nene’s speech, has not commented on the protests, some of them violent, that have disrupted at least 14 of South Africa’s universities in the past week. Many students have no personal recollection of apartheid and thus little emotional allegiance to the ruling African National Congress.
South African universities initially wanted to increase tuition fees by up to 11.5 percent, prompting students to launch their campaign on Oct. 13.
Critics have said the increase would further disadvantage black students, who are already relatively under-represented.
The protesters, who included white students, have rejected a proposal from some student leaders, university heads and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to cap fee increases at 6 percent for 2016, just above inflation.
Three students were hurt during a rally in the Eastern Cape as protesters threw stones and burned tyres and police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades. It was not clear what caused their injuries.
University bosses said the increases were needed to maintain standards and they urged the government to find the extra funding. The government, which pays subsidies to universities, said it could not afford to pay for free education as demanded by the students, who chanted “Zero, Zero, Zero”, referring to fees.
Government bonds fell sharply and the rand weakened more than 1.5 percent as the chaos erupted.
“We need to find a sustainable way of dealing with the issue of financing education in general ... We do need to find a solution,” Nene told reporters before reading his budget speech.
Nene later told Reuters in an interview that a process to take money from other skills development funds and move them to university education was already under way.
In his budget, he trimmed his deficit estimate for the year 2015/16 to 3.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) from 3.9 percent forecast in February, forecasting a 3.3 percent gap in 2016/17 and 3 percent in 2018/19.
Nene told parliament the economic growth forecast for 2015 had been cut to 1.5 percent from 2.0 percent forecast in February due to “electricity supply constraints, falling commodity prices and lower confidence levels.”
“Leaving aside the politically-motivated drama from the EFF ... at first sight the news is still negative. Growth forecasts were revised down as expected,” said Razia Khan, chief economist, Africa at Standard Chartered Bank.
($1 = 13.4765 rand)
Additional reporting by Johannesburg bureau; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Ruth Pitchford, Toni Reinhold