The violence unfolding at universities has gone viral. People outside the university environment should witness the heavy-handed force of police, but the moments in between often say more about the student protests than the burning images being shared.
One of the most striking moments of this year’s wave of student protests happened last week. Students from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) marched from the main campus at Kingsway to the varsity’s Doornfontein campus. Along the way, police escorted students, donning helmets and vests, and armed to the tee with their arsenal of public order policing weapons. But they didn’t intend to use them.
“We are helping them, we don’t want to disperse them,” an officer in charge told his team, who were standing in the police bakkie with him.
As the students marched the 7km from Kingsway to Doornfontein, the police assisted them. At every big intersection, a cop car was ready, directing traffic and blocking roads so that students could pass freely.
The officer leading the cops shouted at the students, like a grumpy parent: “no, no, get off the pavement!” or “don’t break the line, man!” Eventually, the piqued officer gave students a yellow police tape that they stretched out to keep students behind the frontline.
The most comedic moment came when a car tragically got stuck in front of the police bakkie and the crowd of student protesters behind it. It was tragic because it was the worst time and place for any vehicle to be stuck. The driver attempted, and failed, to get the car going with the help of a push from the students and cops.
— raeesa pather (@raediology) September 28, 2016
“He can’t drive, this man,” a student said, exasperated.
“Hey comrades, this car is stuck!”
A large group of student protesters moved swiftly forward, before they realised there were too many of them eager to help. The few students and cops who tried to push the vehicle knew that it was an unlikely moment of collaboration and they bantered.
“Look at how we’re working together. I’m going to remind you of this when I see you on campus,” a student joked with the policeman leading the public order unit.
Nearly a week later, that same officer would stand alongside fellow public order policing officials who threw stun grenades, fired rubber bullets and released teargas at hundreds of peacefully protesting students from the University of the Witwatersrand.
In response, student paramedics dodged rubber bullets and stun grenades, as well as the rocks flying from students who were retaliating against the cops on Tuesday. The student paramedics wore rubber gloves, clenched their white cases of first aid essentials tightly and treated protesters who needed the medical assistance.
Those paramedics are themselves students and a group of them sheepishly said that they were unwilling to be named, because they had left their academic obligations to help students who needed it. There was one, however, who spoke freely.
“People were wounded with rubber bullets and teargas. Some were having panic attacks. It’s a really good thing that we’re helping fellow students and we’re going to get free education whether they [management] like it or not,” Scott Sibanda said.
The Wits students have since last week vowed to be peaceful and at one point student leaders said that they had separated the “violent ones” from the rest of the group. They had been singing and walking when police threw stun grenades at them on Tuesday, and when the chaos lulled for a few minutes outside the Great Hall, students came bearing cherry blossoms for the cops. Most of the officers didn’t accept the demonstration of peace, but students went on to fill bullet casings and teargas cartridges with the flowers.
“It’s a token of peace to show that we are here in solidarity and in peace to advocate for those who cannot afford education,” Panasha Sibanda (20), a student who had offered flowers to police, said.
— raeesa pather (@raediology) October 4, 2016
Moments prior to Sibanda’s gesture, a student had a brief conversation with a police officer after the cops had fired more rounds.
“Fees are so expensive,” the student said conversationally.
“I know, I am also a parent,” the officer responded.
Anyone who is not at the universities throughout these protests could easily miss the light banter, the heavy, more emotional interactions, as well as the every day life mishaps that come into play.
The gift of flowers, a car being stuck and being yelled at by the cops are not too far from the experience of a human’s every day life in South Africa. But these experiences are being lost, because they happen in between the noise.
In the messiness of it all, there is a strong sense of humanity in these protests. It’s not just hellfire and rocks, but also the very real experience of care, sympathy and the bonds between people on the ground that are so easily missed in the violence that follows.