By Wits Observers
The escalation of ongoing conflict between police and students protesting for free, decolonised, quality education at the University of the Witwatersrand is now exposing those working and living on campus to violent incidents daily.
More than two weeks ago, our report stated that the university’s decision to forcibly resume the academic programme with police and private security presence was miscalculated and dangerous. Since then, the risk to students, whether protesting or not, as well as staff, has steadily increased. On the night of 14 October, the situation intensified as police tear-gassed and shot at students in and around residences, many of whom were returning from dining halls or trying to study.
That day, university management introduced a curfew on the basis that “the university has sustained huge losses due to destruction of property”. According to the university, it “has an obligation to ensure the safety and security of persons and infrastructure within its precincts and has resolved to put into place measures to minimise the present danger”. The curfew, now partially lifted, curtailed all activities on campus from 10pm to 6am. Shortly after management’s announcement was sent at 5pm on that day, clashes at the main campus ensued.
Police enforced a strict application of the curfew on the predominantly black students in residences. #HabibsApartheid started trending on Twitter, spreading the news of the police action and the curfew, prompting protesters to attempt to defy it. The violent incidents that occurred that night resulted in damage to university property, multiple arrests (especially after the action moved off campus), and injury and trauma to a significant portion of the student residential community. Based on testimonies from student residents, medics, observers, volunteer first aiders and staff who were at the scenes, we uncovered parts of what happened on that night at just two of the residences, Sunnyside and David Webster.
These accounts contradict with official university statements circulated the following day.
According to a Campus Control incident report, at 5.30pm, protests began near the Matrix, a small on-campus mall, which also houses residence dining halls.
Police dispersed protesters from this area and pushed others off campus into Braamfontein, where, at about 10.30pm, violent clashes began.
Protesters later regrouped on campus and caused a number of fire-related incidents on both East and West Campus. To hide from police near the Matrix, some protesters ran into Sunnyside, from which vantage point, Campus Control claims, stones were thrown at the police. The report states: “At no point did the police enter Sunnyside or shoot inside the residence.” It also claims no one was affected or evacuated.
Testimony from residents report otherwise, while also providing clarity concerning how the police “pushed back”, “dispersed”, “responded to” and “cleared” students from sites of protest, as described in the official statement.
Daily events at Wits over the past four weeks have shown that these “defensive” police tactics mean the use of water cannons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets fired by police in Nyalas or on foot, at both long and short range. This practice has resulted in grievous bodily harm for protesters, and increasing injury to a growing community of students, staff and bystanders.
Sunnyside residence is home to 270 women, one of whom commented about the night of 14 October: “We have no turnstile on our door, so protesters run [in] here and the police attack from outside. We help our fellow students as much as we can. But we’re easy targets.”
In targeting protesters who entered Sunnyside at about 6pm on 14 October, police later tear-gassed the entrance and surrounding areas, causing the gas to fill basement rooms and the foyer. Two Nyalas were stationed outside the residence.
A volunteer first aider, who noted the police presence outside Sunnyside, approached the area to see if anyone was in need of medical assistance. The first aider told us that at about 7.20pm, police, unprovoked, fired a tear gas canister on to the top step of the residence, and rubber bullets into the entrance.
Although we have been unable to definitively confirm that the police action at this point was entirely unprovoked, a recently released video account from advocacy group Media for Justice shows some police action that night to be erratic, unwarranted and indiscriminate.
Nor is there any evidence available to us that there was any gathering or immediate and serious safety risk in the area that would justify such an attack under the Regulation of Gatherings Act.
After the commotion at Sunnyside, two first aiders went outside to engage with the police. An officer called the first aiders from the Nyala. One of the first aiders identified themselves, but the policeman refused to give his name in return.
The first aiders, explained to the officer that, as medics, they should be able to have freedom of movement, in spite of the curfew. The officer reportedly replied: “I’m giving you 15 minutes to move.”
The first aiders returned to Sunnyside and relayed the news. Other residents corroborated this, stating that police instructed them to leave or risk getting shot.
There was much confusion, with tear gas forcing some of the students out of the building, while others hid in their rooms. The first aider said: “If Wits senior management doesn’t inform police [about the presence of student medics at sites of protest], then it puts us in a tough situation, because we [need to] move around and the police think anyone moving is a suspect.”
Over the course of the past few weeks, university management has provided little medical support for students affected by the conflict. As the need for medics and trauma counsellors grew, medical and psychological students stepped into these roles at great risk.
On 11 October, Campus Health got caught in the crossfire between protesters and the police, further endangering medics and those injured. With no available facilities, Campus Health has maintained its office hours and has closed at 4.30pm.
Official university communication focuses on the need for police intervention, but remains silent about the medical impact of the conflict on the academic community. The protection of “safe spaces” for medical care is a continuing concern.
Another video from Media for Justice provides testimonies of women who witnessed events on that night of 14 October at David Webster Hall on West Campus.
The danger began after 10.40pm when police fired into a crowd of protesters defying curfew. Students retreated into the residence, after which, according to the testimony in the video, police fired at windows where students appeared. Though management suggests police did not enter residences, students giving testimony to Media for Justice claimed three policemen forcefully entered one woman’s room at David Webster.
The woman said she heard a commotion and opened her bedroom door, encountering three policemen in the passage. Before she could close and lock her door, police entered and asked why she wasn’t asleep. Two of them started assaulting her and, in self-defence, she grabbed at one policeman’s arm, breaking his watch strap. The third policeman then fired a rubber bullet point blank at her hip. Without any on-site medical facilities available, the student was taken to the nearby Charlotte Maxeke Hospital.
University management insists that “no one was affected” at Sunnyside on the night of 14 October, and that police did not enter or attack residences, which contradicts the experiences of students in residences. The conflicting accounts of ongoing events like those that took place on that night have given rise to deep schisms and mistrust that further polarise the community at Wits, and continue to undermine attempts at mediation.
Wits Observers are a group of staff and students who are witnessing and recording events during the securitisation on Wits campuses. The group is constituted of individuals with diverse political positions but with a shared concern to avoid injury to all.
Main Photo: Police shoot at student protestors during Fees Must Fall mass action at Wits University. The violence at Wits University two weeks ago went on for much longer than the university’s management would admit to — by Daylin Paul