The situation was tense on Tuesday morning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg campus, following a violent protest which led to the William O’Brien (WOB) Lecture Hall being set alight.
This follows protests by students over the past couple of weeks against the National Student Financial Aid (Nsfas) scheme’s new direct payment method.
According to Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Sergeant Sifiso Gwala, the incident happened around 10pm on Monday.
He said an employee at the university received a call from his colleagues informing him that there were about 50 students who were gathering by the WOB Lecture Hall.
“When he went to check the students were busy collecting stones and there was a rubble fire that had already started inside the M9 gate. He went to get a fire extinguisher to put out the fire at the gate.
“He was then informed by the controller that the WOB Lecture Hall was on fire. When he got there the roof was already burnt and firefighters and police were called,” he said.
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Gwala said the entire WOB hall was burnt. Police are investigating a case of arson.
He added that no one has been arrested and there were no reports of any injuries.
This is the second fire that has happened in this university since the protest started earlier this month.
About two weeks ago, university cars, including the SRC’s were burnt and other buildings were stoned.
When The Witness visited the campus on Tuesday morning, only a few students were seen walking inside and outside the campus.
Armed police officers were seen inside the campus.
A fire department employee stationed in one of the four stations around the city said the state of affairs in the fire department was dire.
He said city management has not done anything to resolve the staff shortage and the “dead” fire engines.
The WOB exam room could not have burnt to the ground had there been adequate fire services in Msunduzi, he said.
“I’m not based in the city centre but I can tell you that huge fires could be disastrous in Msunduzi. In Oribi there’s only one fire engine and the other one is not in compliance with the airport’s regulations.
The city station has one fire engine in operation and the other one is not operational. We are 60 firemen understaffed in such a big city.
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“The question you should be asking the city management is, do they have a plan in place to get the fire department in working order? We are in serious trouble because the municipality’s fire services are not adequate should a fire disaster-hit parts of the city and immediate surroundings,” said the employee.
He said it was common to find a fire station closed because of the shortage of staff.
Msunduzi spokesperson Ntobeko Mkhize said their fire department was called around midnight to attend to the fire.
“When firefighters got to the facility the fire had already caused extensive damage to the structure. We are facing a new challenge though because two weeks ago our firemen were attacked with stones by students in one of the university protests in town. This poses a security threat to our employees,” said Mkhize.
*Additional reporting by Chris Ndaliso.