We crouch low behind the Toyota Tazz, wishing it was a BMW or a 4X4. “Do rubber bullets and rocks go through Toyota windows” we wonder.
Loud bangs and smoke alert us to the heavily armed riot police on the University of Witwatersrand campus. The students who’d been throwing rocks and bricks at the university’s Yale Road gates flee. The police — weighed down by their equipment — are unable to chase after them for long, instead they train their long-range rifles with rubber bullets on the surrounds
A colleague and I run behind a security guard house and put our hands up in the air, a burly police officer, covered in armadillo protection and a helmet, breaks away from the others and trains his rubber bullet-filled rifle on us.
“Media, media!” I shout.
My colleague is going live to the hourly news bulletin and is trying to describe what’s going on while raising one hand in the air, she is clutching her phone with the other.
“Please don’t shoot,” I beg the police officer. He tells me: “You media are the cause of this.”
Pointing out media freedoms in a democracy flitted across my mind, but he was holding a rifle filled and appeared intent on using it on someone.
He then looked at my backpack and sneakers and grew suspicious: “How do I know you’re media? [And not a student]. I wanted to reach into my bag and take out my press-card but feared this would make him even more trigger-happy. I also suspected he would have tossed it back in my face. The person who holds the gun has all the power.
He then told me and my colleague to get off campus because he “don’t know if you’re media”.
Running towards the exit, two students were being arrested. They had been bystanders during the rock throwing episode, hiding behind a large sign. The female student was clearly terrified while police told her to lie down and assured her they’d do nothing to her. They then put their knees into both students backs and searched them, before shoving them roughly into a police van and arresting them for public violence (despite finding no rocks or weapons on them).
The colour of the sky on that Wednesday afternoon last week, was the exact same shade it had been on the two days previously, when the fees protests at Wits University started.
Then, students at the Yale Road entrance had stopped cars by singing and explaining to motorists why the exit was blocked. One motorist even got out of his vehicle and joined the students in the road after they explained their motivation for the protests.
But by the time the sun was setting over Wits university campus in Braamfontein last week Monday, police had come onto campus. The police had changed into riot gear in front of students. They donned the armadillo arm-pads and knee-pad. Gathered shields, batons and helmets. They also wore bulletproof vests with tear-gas canisters hanging off them.
The mood changed almost immediately.
“What are police expecting”? “Why are they so heavily armed”? students asked.
Also on campus was a large private security contingent. While slightly shabbier and less resourced when it came to riot-gear, they wore all black. They looked menacing behind their shields.
Last Tuesday morning, they and dozens of police vehicles all took up positions along the long road that runs through Wits, marking it as their territory. Thirty-one students were arrested at the entrance to the university early that morning, sending a clear signal of what was to come.
The boundaries were clearly marked. Police and private security would have the road, the students- the campuses and classrooms. Tuesday morning saw a tenser atmosphere prevail as students marched around the institution disrupting lectures. A small group ran into the buildings using fire extinguishers to force people out, while the ever growing crowd sang and chanted outside.
Noting the heavy police presence and interest, students asked media not to film them or take pictures, chasing the larger cameras away. A helicopter circled overheard, watching their every move.
Students then slipped off campus, determined to march to the nearby Education Campus, in Parktown to meet with another large crowd of students. They ran down Jan Smuts Avenue, not quite believing they would be allowed to get away with this.
The police helicopter ensured they wouldn’t.
The students were met with loud stun grenades just over the M1 highway by Empire Road. Mass panic ensued as students ran away from the police, into the side streets. The helicopter again located them, dropping low while students raised their arms in the air. Police came from the back towards the group but decided to catch up with them in the front instead and disappeared briefly.
Running and stumbling through the midday heat, students stopped traffic in Empire Rd and headed towards Pieter Roos Park in Parktown. They were close to the Education Campus when riot police blocked their path on Victoria Road, the road which leads to the Constitutional Court. Their first instinct was to run but student leaders raised their hands, sank to their knees and pleaded with the police not to shoot them.
The crowd took out their student cards waving them in the air, showing they are students at this institution and were allowed onto the various campuses. After much negotiation police realised their destination was 100 metres away and allowed them through.
After a rest at the Education Campus and a mass meeting, students marched back to the Braamfontein Campus under heavy police guard, terrified they would be met with stun grenades again and asking the media to serve as a buffer.
Hot and exhausted, they wanted to hold a short meeting inside Solomon Mahlangu House (formerly Senate House), which has served as the focal point of the 2015 and 2016 fees protests.
Students found their way into the Great Hall blocked by private security guards who are unable to take decisions on the ground after negotiations. The guards, dressed in helmets and shields beat students back from the steps and they retreated temporarily.
A tense stand-off ensued for a few seconds while each side wearily watched the other, in the shadow of the iconic building. A student who was at the front described to me what he saw: The lead security officer had a rock in his hands, careful to keep it out of sight of the media, he made as if he was ready to lob the rock, stopping at the last second, and, by then, the first rock aimed at the private security guards had flown over from the students’ camp.
Time appeared to stand still for the duration of the rock fight. Students picked up rocks from the nearby flower beds, while security guards threw them back. The air was heavy with rocks, sounds of shattering glass and screams. As the rocks bounced off the pillars, lining the entrance to the Great Hall, we wondered how long this skirmish would be allowed to continue.
The heavy police contingent which had been lining the road inside Wits finally made their presence felt as private security personnel ran down the stairs to try and attack students individually.
“Stop it, stop it,” the senior police official shouted at the security guards and students.
Several students and security guards were injured. The university instituted an investigation and removed the personnel who’d been part of the violence. Their colleagues remain.
After the chaos and violence, the police allowed the students to go through the building to Solomon House — their original destination, where they held a short meeting.
I was reminded of covering the Fees Must Fall protests at Stellenbosch University last year. Having been at Parliament the day students burst through and had subsequently been forcefully removed from the Cape Town CBD, I’d seen many incidents of police brutality and unnecessary force. But it was the incident in Stellenbosch that stuck.
Students at Stellenbosch were more likely to lug brie, rocket and ciabatta sandwiches to protests then take issue with the police.
On 23 October 2015, with all eyes were trained on the Union Buildings and the student protests there. While President Jacob Zuma met with student leaders inside, students at Stellies were disrupting classes (it was one of the few universities not to shut its campus during this period). They held up creative signs and switched off lights in lecture rooms, registering their discontent with the academic programme continuing while the fight for a zero percent fee increase was underway.
A large group met in one of the streets in the idyllic university town where they were addressed by students from the University of Cape Town. A police Nyala began revving its engine up and down the road while they were meeting. Police officers dressed in riot gear and holding rubber bullets also strutted around several times. Within minutes a dustbin at the end of the road was ablaze and a number of students were arrested for this.
The presence of private security and heavily armed police officers makes people edgy, fearful and anxious. It makes peaceful people wonder what they’ve done wrong that warrants such a respones.
The Dutch understood this when they attempted to tackle football hooliganism, which was turning into a major headache for authorities and supporters. They removed the burly, menacing security guards from entrances to the Ajax Amsterdam Stadium and replaced them with young students who look like ordinary football supporters. They’d greet people cheerily at the gates and check their tickets. By the time people reached their seats, they were already disarmed by the calm and friendly atmosphere.
This is the polar opposite of the South African Police Services’ and universities’ approach to security. On Wednesday 21 September 2016, Wits students left the Braamfontein campus to try recruit people from nearby colleges. They went as far as Rosebank College, when they were met by riot police who blocked their path. Students lifted their hands in the air and sang but their negotiations with SAPS were fruitless and they turned around, going back to campus.
Instead of going all the way inside the grounds, a group stayed outside singing in the entranceway, insisting this was their university and they have a right to be there. Police formed a line, with police on horseback on Jorrisen St, as they watched a student sit down in the road telling them to shoot her with a book in her hands.
A group started singing while sitting down in front of the tense officers and without warning, three stun grenades were fired, sending green smoke into the air. Two students were badly injured, including a first-year that had part of her face burnt off by flames of the flash-bang.
After a few moments of shock, students retaliated, breaking up the stone dustbins and hurling the large rocks at the police. More professional than the security guards the previous day, they didn’t throw them back but advanced with rubber bullets instead. During the skirmish some journalists were also the target of angry students. The sight of an ambulance and a stretcher appeared to decompress the situation but small groups still wanted to attack private security and police in retaliation, which is why my colleague and I were ducking behind cars that late afternoon.
Wits university medical students who attended the protests carrying first aid boxes say they treated 100 people for light injuries, such as bruises and cuts over those two violent days last week.
Realising the situation couldn’t continue, students held a lengthy meeting the next day, electing committees and leaders who negotiated a route with police and traffic authorities for a march to Cosatu House on the Friday.
The same heavily armed police officers who’d been involved in the violence the previous days accompanied the students. There was some consternation from the marching students as police wanted them to put down their sticks. They were told this was to hold the line of students, ensure discipline and are a cultural part of protests. The march was peaceful but students questioned the heavy presence outside Cosatu House: “Are they scared of children of the working class?”
If police appear to be heavy-handed, at least they have structures they account to and wear name-badges. Security guards belonging to the Fidelity Security Company were employed by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to ensure the institution wouldn’t have to shut down after coming back from recess a week after the protests began at Wits University.
UJ students last year complained about the “bouncers” assaulting and sexually harassing them on their campuses. This year, UJ has employed 400 of these security guards. While not releasing any financial figures into the cost of this, a very conservative estimate puts it at R2-million a month.
UJ Vice- Chancellor Professor Ihron Rensburg explained the necessity of the heavy security detail by insisting this is the only way it can remain open. He was however less willing to remove them or be specific about an investigation over the violence they instigated last week.
On Wednesday afternoon, 29 September, police at UJ realised the situation between private security guards and students was becoming untenable after several rock throwing incidents and agreed to accompany a large group from the Kingsway Campus in Auckland Park to the Doornfontein Campus. The distance was seven kilometres, through peak hour traffic and students marched peacefully behind police vehicles, keeping the line steady with police tape. It was almost a celebratory atmosphere as students marched through Hillbrow as the sun set, waving at students in the high rise buildings to come down and join them.
When the growing crowd reached UJ’s Doornfontein Campus, night had fallen. Security guards were waiting for them, armed with rocks and sticks. A few students tried to get onto the property, behind the boom gates and the security guards unleashed their rocks, sticks and pepper spray at the students, journalists and a few police officers.
Students retreated up the embankment on Joe Slovo Drive and hurled stones back at the security guards. A few leaders tried to encourage them to sit in front of the gates, peacefully singing and asked the police to protect them. Police officers, who appeared frightened of the security guards, tried to negotiate with them,
The aggression by the security guards spilled out onto the surrounding streets, where they hunted down journalists and students, pepper spraying them. Police fired rubber bullets at students who’d lit fires in a nearby road, in an attempt to disperse them. Students in the residences sang out their windows, powerless to prevent the violence below. Looking up at the female students, I shivered, thinking of the brutality the security guards dispensed in full view of the media and police. How do they then behave in the numerous nooks and crannies on campus? The hefty guards continued their assault at the nearby petrol station, beating a journalist who’d been filming then.
A day later Rensburg said he was “saddened” by the security guards employed by his university attacking students and the media He denied they’d been given orders to do this but was unable to explain how the university allowed the attacks to continue for so long, without calling them off, despite monitoring events on camera.
The “bouncers” remain at UJ for now.
When institutions like government, universities and civil society say students have the right to protest but should do this peacefully, do they ask what leads to the build-up in militancy and if police and private security are given a similar warning? Do they stress to the police and private security that their mandate is to protect human life and property, peacefully and without violence.
One of the recommendations from the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana Massacre was for a panel of experts to review Public Order Policing in its entirety. Police Minister Nathi Nhleko set up this panel in April this year and it has 15 months to complete its work. A few members of the panel, which includes academics, independent researchers and senior police officers, are frustrated at the slow rate of progress. This is an ideal opportunity for the panel to come up with creative, targeted solutions to public order policing and transform the way society interacts with authorities. It can only be hoped they and government seize this chance.
** Police in Gauteng referred all questions about the use of stun grenades on sitting students and the pointing of a rubber bullet rifle at short range to Gauteng MEC for Community Safety, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane’ office.
The following response was emailed:
“The MEC for Community Safety, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, and the South African Police Service Provincial management engaged with the students’ representatives of the Gauteng Academic Institutions regarding protests and degree of violence including confrontation between the students and the police over the “FeesMustFall” protests. The main objective was to deal with issues of confrontation and lawful options opened to the students when they engaged themselves in protests marches.
The engagement with all the parties involved will continue but the commitment by the police to take any action in preventing any conduct which may endanger the security and safety of the community of this Province including property still remains. Both parties agreed that no stone must will be left unturned to deal with all criminal activities. Criminal elements who may not necessarily be current students at these institutions will also be identified.
Line of communication between the students will be opened at all times and police hope that the students will always conduct their protests in a peaceful manner.”
Main Photograph: A phalanx of private security guards at Wist University this week — Daylin Paul