Two hurt in South Africa protest, students say rubber bullets fired

By Tanisha Heiberg JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - At least two students were injured on Wednesday when South African police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protests over the cost of education, university and student representatives said. It was the second say of clashes at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, known as "Wits", after the government said 2017 tuition fees could rise by 8 percent, well above the 5.9 percent inflation rate. Demonstrations since 2015 over the cost of university education, prohibitive for many black students, have highlighted frustration at the inequalities more than two decades after the end of white-minority rule. Heavy shots rang out as police dispersed the marchers from the streets, and traffic in parts of the city center was disrupted as students fled, many running back to the campus as a police helicopter hovered above. The police denied firing rubber bullets - which are designed to be non-lethal but can kill - and said the students' injuries were caused by falling over while running away. "The students threw stones at the police and the police fired stun grenades," spokesman Lungelo Dlamini said, adding that one police officer was hurt in the neck by a stone. Dlamini could not confirm reports of arrests. He said earlier that the 31 students arrested at Wits on Tuesday had been released. University spokeswoman Shirona Patel told eNCA television that one of the injured students was hit by a rubber bullet. Student representative Fasiha Hassan said: "Students were fired at with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades," adding that protests would continue "until our demands are met." Nompendulo Mkatshwa, president of the student representative council, said some students "want to fight back because they don't understand why they have been attacked." Two other universities, in Pretoria and Cape Town, suspended classes as nationwide demonstrations demanding free tertiary education entered a third week, but there were no reports of violence. Violent protests last year forced President Jacob Zuma to freeze fees for 2016, but universities said doing that again could damage their academic programs. The government and the main opposition party have accused students of turning campuses into battlegrounds, urging them to seek peaceful ways to resolve their demands. "If I was the minister of education I would close the universities for six months," the ruling African National Congress Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told Talk Radio 702. Earlier this month, 32 students were arrested after a law library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal was torched following protests over tuition fees. (Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)