JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — More than 17,000 students, faculty and university staff members rallied and marched on four South African campuses Wednesday, calling strict new government controls on anti-apartheid activity a serious threat to academic freedom and university autonomy.
"We shall not subjugate ourselves to these savage conditions," Prof. Phillip V. Tobias told about 6,000 people gathered in front of the University of Witwatersrand's Great Hall.
"We shall not prostitute our calling as academics to become a spying and policing agency," he said. "We shall never cease our struggle for autonomy and freedom, nor our determined opposition to racism, apartheid and authoritarianism."
After the rally at Witwatersrand, riot police used tear gas to disperse about 200 students who had gathered at the university gates to sing political songs. The authorities also chased several hundred students who left the procession and ran along an adjacent street, chanting and waving banners. Those students quickly returned to campus. There were no reports of serious injuries or arrests.
The protest rallies occurred simultaneously at the universities of Cape Town, Western Cape, Natal and Witwatersrand--the country's largest English-speaking universities. Leaders of those universities have been highly critical of the rules, which went into effect Oct. 19, and have vowed to challenge them in court.
The new rules compel university administrators to take "all reasonable steps" to stop militant anti-government activities on campus--or risk losing millions of dollars worth of government subsidies, which account for 70% to 80% of university operating costs.
The minister of national education, Frederik W. de Klerk, said in announcing the rules that the government's aim "is not to encroach upon the autonomy of universities."
"I would like to stress that the managerial autonomy of the universities and the academic freedom of students, staff and universities will not be substantially affected," he added.
De Klerk had proposed the rules in August, saying that civil unrest over the past three years had threatened the universities and endangered the restoration of order around the country. Under the rules, universities must halt class boycotts as well as support for political movements banned by security laws.
There have been class boycotts at a number of black universities, some of which have been closed for weeks at a time, and students have clashed with the police during anti-government demonstrations at mostly white universities.
In recent months, several speakers, conservative and liberal, have been prevented by campus militants from delivering remarks at universities. In one case, a conservative black politician left the podium amid a hail of sticks and stones.
The government's rules were widely criticized by the English-speaking universities, several of which made it clear that they would refuse to implement government demands that they report individual incidents of protest or unrest to the education minister.
"We find the minister's conditions completely unacceptable," Mike Rosholt, chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, told students assembled on the university's campus near downtown Johannesburg.
The chancellor then led the procession around the campus.
None of the country's Afrikaans-speaking universities participated in Wednesday's demonstrations.
Times researcher Michael Cadman contributed to this article.