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A student walks through the remains of a torched building at North-West University in Mahikeng, South Africa, on Feb. 25.

The Associated Press

Students were ordered on Thursday to abandon a South African university, leaving behind charred, smouldering buildings after protests turned violent.

North-West University said protesting students burned an administration building and science centre at the campus in Mahikeng (also called Mafikeng) on Wednesday night.

Student protests have erupted across South Africa, often aimed at pressing for lower tuition, more student housing and erasing remnants of South Africa's racist past.

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"Students have nowhere to go. They are just roaming around the streets of Mahikeng," said Ofentse Pilane, 24, a final-year political science student. For now, he'll squat with friends until his parents, who live two hours away, are able to send him some money.

"International students are facing severe problems," he said.

The university has made arrangements for students to camp at a nearby civic hall until they can find their way home, sometimes to neighbouring countries, a university spokesman said.

South African President Jacob Zuma said: "No amount of anger should drive students to burn their own university and deny themselves and others education."

In recent days, black and white students have even come to blows over the use of Afrikaans as a teaching language, an echo of the 1976 student uprising in the Soweto township south of Johannesburg against apartheid. Those bloody protests, forcibly put put down by security forces, erupted over a rule that classes be taught in Afrikaans, considered to be the language of the white oppressor.

In other violence at college campuses in recent days:

  • At the University of the Free State, black protesters disrupted a rugby match, leading mostly white spectators to run onto the field to attack the protesters. The university said in a statement that “the reaction from the group of spectators ... not only opened old wounds, it trampled, literally and figuratively, on the dignity and humanity of other human beings.”
  • At the University of Pretoria, student members of the Economic Freedom Fighters opposition party fought members of AfriForum, an Afrikaner cultural group, according to an online video. Morne Mostert, leader of the cultural group’s youth wing, told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that rather than do away with Afrikaans, universities should develop education in black African languages.

Violence at the North-West University campus started after some students disrupted the inauguration of a new student council, said university spokesman Koos Degenaar.

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Defying a court order, Benz Mabengwane, a suspended student leader, entered the university and addressed his supporters. Private security officers tried to disperse the crowd using rubber bullets and tear gas as students threw stones at them.

Mabengwane denied that students were behind the fires.

Mabengwane is part of a dissolved student council calling for the removal of Afrikaans as a teaching language, which it says unfairly benefits white students on the historically white Potchefstroom campus. The council also wants students who are unable to pay their tuition to be allowed to continue their studies, said Mabengwane.

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