The pastor of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church next to Wits University, Father Graham Pugin, was shot in the face at close range by a South African Police Service officer, enraging students and sparking further violence in Braamfontein. But he has called for calm amid the outrage.
“He wants you to know he’s receiving trauma care. He kindly asked that you do not react in violence because of him. This church has always been a neutral and safe space and I am horrified,” said Matthew Charlesworth, a fellow priest at Holy Trinity who relayed the message to students.
At least 20 people were injured and 15 arrested in Monday’s Fees Must Fall protest, which spilled over into the streets after police and private security blocked students from entering the university’s Great Hall.
Running clashes between students throwing rocks and police firing rubber bullets, tear-gas and stun grenades continued throughout Braamfontein today and this culminated in students seeking refuge in the church and the police attempting to drive a Nyala into the yard to arrest them.
While some students threw rocks and others scattered away from the church’s entrance, Pugin stood in front of the gate in his white church robes with his hands raised in the air. Then, police shot him from the Nyala and the rubber bullet struck his mouth.
Pugin started to bleed and turned his back on the police, who continued firing, when he was embraced by another church employee. As the barrage of bullets ended, Pugin was led into his office to receive treatment.
“I’ve always supported the students when they get shot. Our church has a clinic that treats the injured and we decided to open the gates for them because police were shooting them all over Braamfontein,” he had earlier told the Mail and Guardian.
Several other students looked on in shock as blood poured out of Pugin’s mouth and down his church robes.
“They shot him right in front of me with his hands up. He was so peaceful,” said a 20-year-old Wits student with tears in her eyes, who did not want to be named.
The shooting also enraged Wimpy Sello, a 27 year old who lives on the streets and collects scrap material, and moved him to start pelting police with rocks. Sello has been homeless for eight years and said he receives food, clothes and medical care from the Holy Trinity Church and its free clinic.
“When they shot at pastor, my heart broke. I got cross because pastor gives me food and everything. If pastor dies, I’d rather die with him … I wasn’t fighting but I put down my trolley and pick up the stones because when you shoot pastor, I must fight,” he told the Mail and Guardian, while clutching two rocks in his hands.
Students gathered for a meeting inside the church shortly after Pugin was rushed to hospital and were addressed by Charlesworth.
“You are welcome here. But please, I appeal to your leaders, when you lead you have to be very careful that you do not incite people to violence unnecessarily. The entire country is watching and are waiting to see how we react in this church. My prayer is that you will behave better than they expect of you,” he said.
Fees Must Fall student leader Shaeera Kalla told the students that the police’s violent response on church officials has touched a nerve.
“We fled to this place to seek refuge, instead we were attacked in the church yard. If this is the extent the government will go to to suppress and demoralise us, it means we are touching a nerve,” Kalla said.