This week at the University of the Witwatersrand, at the height of clashes between police and student protesters and amid the stones, rubber bullets and stun grenades, three women strip off their tops and confront the long arm of the law.
As the women approach the line of shotgun-wielding, body-armour-wearing police, the officers’ fingers rest beside their triggers. The indecision is visible. As the women get closer, the officers lower the guns, averting their eyes from the half-naked activists.
One of them is Wits student representative council member Sarah Mokwebo, who explains how their action was a desperate attempt to stop the violence.
“That was the whole point of the nude protest: to get closer to the police and to convey our grievances to them. That meant we had to face them head on, look into their eyes and plead with them. I paid no mind to the meaning of their stares at that point in time.”
The line of six officers becomes four as the women march forward, their breasts exposed, their fists raised. One of them shouts: “History will continue to judge you! Stop shooting us! Cease fire, guys! It’s for free education.”
With each step, the officers appear more uncomfortable, turning their attention to the swarm of journalists surrounding the protesters. Still, the women demand an end to the police’s firing of rubber bullets and teargas.
The police line has now completely broken up and individual officers seem disoriented, their eyes looking everywhere except at the topless protesters, even as they hurl insults and demand acknowledgement.
Mokwebo believes the police retreated because of the uncompromising nature of their protest. “Because we stood in front of them nude. Vulnerable. Hurt. Bare.
“Our going topless was a form of resistance. There is lots of literature that talks about the political significance of naked protests, especially in the African context. And it worked. The police stopped firing. The point of us going topless was for cops to cease fire.”
Mokwebo says female nudity is generally policed in society, and that “in having this conversation about … Wits on Tuesday, we need to also question society’s standards when it comes to womxn’s bodies”.