/ 21 September 2016

Wits University erupts as police blast stun grenades and rubber bullets

Wits University

The Fees Must Fall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) walked into a barrel of police fire the minute they stepped out onto the tar of Jorissen Street in Braamfontein. The day was initially calm, but soon Wits University became a battle ground of rubber bullets and stun grenades.

The students had taken the decision to march into Braamfontein after a mass meeting was held in Solomon Mahlangu House on Wednesday morning. Like many of the meetings in this new round of Fees Must Fall, the students were largely in disagreement about who should speak, who should lead and what their plan of action would be. After hours of deliberation, they decided to head outside the university grounds and shut down the streets of Braamfontein.

But the police didn’t get that memo and when the students exited the gates of the Jorissen Street entrance to Wits, they took it upon themselves to direct traffic. A short while later, the public order police arrived in vans and pulled up in front of the protesters.

“We need to be able to negotiate,” said Busiswe Seabe, a Wits Fees Must Fall leader.

“Please comrades, please step back.”

The police ordered students to return to campus or else they would fire at them. They told a small delegation of students who had come forward to negotiate safe passage that they did not have permission to protest outside campus grounds.

“Just go peacefully to the campus. When you want to march, you know what you must do,” a police officer told the students.

A decision was taken and the students marched back to campus, but remained outside the entrance to Wits on Jorissen Street. Once there, confusion became apparent when some students wanted to remain outside the gates, while others wanted to return to safety. The police formed a line and the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) unrolled some tape to let students know that should they cross the tape, the police would retaliate.

One girl had, however, made up her mind. She sat in front of the police line, armed with a book, and opened it to a page where bright orange highlighter marked a few sentences. She shouted at the police for treating students “like a criminal”, before bowing her head down and reading.

It took a few more minutes, but finally more protesters stepped forward until the girl stood up too and the peaceful crowd made deliberate moves forward, crossing the police line. In response, stun grenades were fired into the crowd, quickly dispersing the protesters who ran back into campus.

Some of them retaliated with rocks, throwing them through the Jorissen Street entrance at the police. The cops remained outside the gate, closing it, before placing the barrels of their guns through the gap to shoot rubber bullets at students. More grenades were fired and, in the haste and chaos, one student fell onto a grenade. It blasted beneath her and her fellow protesters carried her away, attempting to treat her burn wounds.

Shortly after, the explosions of grenades and rubber bullets stopped, while students gathered outside the Great Hall. The injured student was driven away in a campus security car and placed inside an ambulance a few streets away from the university.

After a day of violence the university remained calm, but still tense, as the police remained on campus. By sunset, most of the police had left, but students stayed to plan for Thursday.

Adam Habib, Wits vice-chancellor, is currently in New York attending a United Nations event, but he condemned the violence from private security and students that broke out on Tuesday when security prevented students from entering Solomon House. In Habib’s absence, however, the Wits communications office has released a statement.

“The university strongly condemns these acts of violence,” Wits’ senior executive team said in the statement.

“All university activities remain suspended for the rest of the week. Catering, bus and cleaning services have also been suspended following threats by some students.”

The university said that injured students are being treated by paramedics and staff at the Campus Health and Wellness Centre.