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Fires Ignite Amidst UKZN Student Protests and Safety Concerns



Fires Ignite Amidst UKZN Student Protests and Safety Concerns

For the past few weeks, students have been engaged in protests against the new direct payment method implemented by the National Student Financial Aid (Nsfas) scheme. These demonstrations have led to escalating tensions on the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg campus.

Fires Ignite Amidst UKZN Student Protests and Safety Concerns

The situation reached a boiling point on Tuesday morning as a violent protest erupted, resulting in the William O’Brien (WOB) Lecture Hall catching fire. The incident took place around 10pm on Monday, according to Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Sergeant Sifiso Gwala.

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The Incident Unfolds

Gwala explained that an employee at the university received a distressing call from colleagues who reported the gathering of approximately 50 students near the WOB Lecture Hall. Upon investigation, the employee discovered the students collecting stones and a fire already burning inside the M9 gate. Attempting to extinguish the fire, he was then alerted that the WOB Lecture Hall was also ablaze. Firefighters and police were summoned as the fire consumed the entire hall. The police have initiated an arson investigation.

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Ongoing Student Protests

This occurrence follows a series of protests by students against the Nsfas payment method change. Just a couple of weeks ago, the university experienced vehicular arson, including vehicles belonging to the Student Representative Council (SRC), and instances of vandalism against various structures.

Security Measures and Challenges

Upon visiting the campus, The Witness observed a limited presence of students on the premises, contrasted with armed police officers patrolling the area. The fire department’s role in this situation is crucial, yet an employee from the department revealed concerning challenges. The state of the fire department is reportedly dire due to staffing shortages and non-functional fire engines.

Concerns for Fire Safety

The dire state of affairs in the fire department has raised concerns about the city’s ability to respond to fire-related disasters effectively. The lack of adequate resources and personnel could potentially lead to disastrous consequences. The fire department employee explained that fire stations are frequently closed due to the shortage of staff.

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Municipal Response

Ntobeko Mkhize, spokesperson for Msunduzi municipality, stated that their fire department was called to the scene around midnight. By that time, significant damage had already been inflicted upon the structure by the fire. Mkhize also highlighted a new security challenge the department faces—firefighters have been attacked by students during recent protests, posing a threat to their safety.

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As tensions and protests continue, the situation remains volatile, raising concerns about both the immediate safety of the campus and the broader fire safety capabilities of the city.

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