Armed with pillows, hundreds of South African university students beat each other senseless but fell short of setting the world record for the largest pillow fight ever staged.

For about one minute, some 800 students at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg engaged in a frenzied brawl to the pumping sounds of a local rock band, while around them the air turned thick with flying feathers and foam.

"It was great fun and our official figure show that 806 pillow-fighters participated," said Catherine Salmon of the auditing firm KPMG who were acting on behalf of Guinness World Records.

"Unfortunately it's not a record and they are probably going to have to try again next year," she told AFP.

For most students, the record attempt took second place for simply having the opportunity to pound a friend - or an enemy - into submission.

"I'm here because I was convinced by some of my students to come," said Lew Ashwal, a professor of geology and one of the few lecturers to venture into the enclosed area in front of the campus library.

"I can see them waiting for me over there," the 54-year-old Ashwal said with a hint of trepidation in his voice, before disappearing into the maw.