Scrap collectors join the #FeesMustFall fight
or weeks now, 27-year-old scrap collector Wimpy Sello had been content to neatly sidestep and swerve his trolley around angry students and armed police. Matters of the belly take precedence.
Then students fled into Braamfontein’s Holy Trinity Church, next to the University of the Witwatersrand.
Shotgun-wielding police followed.
Father Graham Pugin stood in their way. That’s when it all changed for Sello.
“When they shot at pastor, my heart broke … If pastor dies, I would 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,” said Sello, who has been sleeping on the streets of Johannesburg for eight years.
The priest was struck in the mouth by a rubber bullet, shot by police at close range as he stood at the church gate to stop them from entering to arrest students. Blood poured down his white robe and students wailed. For the scores of homeless people who rely on the church for food, clothing and medical treatment, the incident involving Pugin ignited a fury, intensifying the running battles.
At least five other men, their trolleys packed with scrap metal and neatly folded cardboard boxes, abandoned their day’s work to join students pelt the police with rocks while dodging the indiscriminate barrage of rubber bullets.
“I was just collecting some scraps, you see it here. But now, they shot our pastor and we get everything at church. Now we can’t keep quiet. I must put down the scrap and fight police because they shooting our pastor,” said 23-year-old James Zwane from Pretoria, who has been homeless for nearly 10 years.
Less than an hour before he was shot, Pugin told the Mail & Guardian the church had become a place of refuge for a growing number of homeless people in the neighbourhood.
“We have got the clinic downstairs and we treat the children who sleep on the street. Then there’s the soup kitchen. We try to help out where we can,” he said.
Some scrap collectors say they have been involved in the protests that started three weeks ago. Standing among a crowd of about 200 people blocking an intersection in Jorrissen Street, 20-year-old Nhlanhla Maseko showed bruises on his legs and back from last week’s clashes with police at the gates of the university.
“Yes, we are here. You can see in the group, there’s about 20 of us,” he said, pointing towards his friends, whose torn, soot-covered clothes stand out in the crowd. “It’s one team and one force here,” said Maseko.
Later on Tuesday, some of this group would be seen looting a high-end fashion store in Braamfontein and setting alight a municipal bus to salvage its batteries and metal to sell as scrap.
The presence of these homeless people in the #FeesMustFall protests has been condemned by the police and other students on social networks. Police Commissioner Khomotso Phalane said the protests had been infiltrated by criminal elements and students on Twitter and Facebook said it discredited their cause.
But Wits’s #FeesMustFall leader, Busisiwe Seabe, endorsed the homeless people taking part in the protest. “The street kids are part of our struggle because they also don’t have access to universities or even colleges and don’t even have homes, never mind finances. So this is their fight as much as it’s ours. They are part of our movement.”