Student protests shut three top South African universities

Students and staff at the University of Cape Town shout slogans during a protest against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on March 20, 2015 (AFP Photo/Rodger Bosch)

Students and staff at the University of Cape Town shout slogans during a protest against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on March 20, 2015

Students and staff at the University of Cape Town shout slogans during a protest against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on March 20, 2015 (AFP Photo/Rodger Bosch)

Johannesburg (AFP) - Student protests halted teaching at three of South Africa's top universities on Monday as demonstrations spread against fee increases that many say will force poor black students further out of the education system.

Officials at Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) announced classes were suspended due to the wave of protests.

Thousands of students have attended rallies against the fee hikes during months of growing campus activism.

"We are merely fighting for education," said Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, students' leader at Wits university in Johannesburg.

"We are fighting to open the doors, so that every black child... can have a chance to play a role in developing the economy of this country."

Protesting students at the university have blockaded entrances in recent days, demanding that the proposed 10.5 percent fee increase for 2016 be scrapped.

Tuition fees at Wits range from 29,620 rand ($2,233, 1,972 euros) per year for a Bachelor of Arts degree and 58,140 rand per year for a medicine degree, excluding accommodation and textbooks.

A late-night meeting on Saturday between students and university officials led to a suspension of any decision on the fees while negotiations are held.

The university said it would remain closed on Tuesday "due to the ongoing protests".

University heads maintain that the fees hike is necessary to provide quality education.

Teaching at UCT, Africa's top-ranked university, also came to a halt, with management describing the disruption of classes by protesting students as unlawful.

Students at UCT earlier this year led a high-profile and successful campaign for the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus.

Protests have been held regularly at several South African universities targeting the limited racial transformation of education since the end of racist white-minority rule, which was eventually overthrown with Nelson Mandela's election in 1994.

Students at Stellenbosch University have been lobbying for more classes to be taught in English rather than Afrikaans, the language of the former apartheid government.