/ 20 September 2016

Wits students vs private security: Rocks fly during Solomon House shutdown

A security detail in front of the Wits Great Hall. Students and university administrators are at loggerheads over the use of private security guards on campuses in South Africa.
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Protesters at the University of the Witwatersrand returned to the main campus after marching to the Education Campus to find private security blocking their way into Solomon Mahlangu House. In their struggle to get into the building, students began throwing rocks at private security, who responded in kind.

Solomon House – officially known as Senate House – is a building protesters consider home. It was here where students assembled last year to shut down the university as the Fees Must Fall movement emerged, and where they met with vice-chancellor Adam Habib in the late hours of an October night, imploring him to sit with them to hear their concerns.

The building is still the main space where students conduct mass meetings to determine how they will proceed. Thus when private security, wearing helmets and donning shields akin to riot police gear, formed a line in front of the entrance to the building and prevented students from entering, a mass confrontation took place. 

Crowds of students moved forward in an attempt to force private security to open the doors. When their attempt failed, they moved back down the steps of the main entrance and crowded on the plaza where they began throwing rocks. 

Private security remained at the doors of Solomon House, using their shields to block the rocks before they began picking up the rocks students had thrown and threw them back at the student protesters.

“You are not fit to be a father,” one student shouted at a private security official.

Currently, the steps of Solomon House are covered with broken rocks. In the outburst of violence, riot police came forward to blockade the building alongside private security. Eventually, students raised their arms and slowly moved forward in a peace offering. While some in the crowd still threw rocks, their fellow protesters asked them to stop until they had managed to move up the steps, to the doors and eventually pushed their way in as police and private security relented.

Just after the confrontation took place, the university released a series of tweets regarding the situation, urging “all members of the university community to remain calm”.

“Violence has broken out between protesting students and security and police officials. Please avoid the Great Hall and Library Lawns,” the university said on its Twitter account.

“Protests should be undertaken in line with the university’s rules and the rights and responsibilities of all, as stated in our Constitution.”

Students are now engaged in a mass meeting inside Solomon House where they are determining what will happen next. Meanwhile, 31 students were arrested earlier this morning, but police have said that they will be released this afternoon.