Students have a democratic and constitutional right to protest. It is not illegal

Somebody needs to make it make sense. Because right now it does not make sense. The country is still coming to terms with the senseless killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba last week. 

A man who had just gone to see his doctor but met his death at the hands of police just moments after walking out of the medical rooms. He was shot and killed by police officers. 

On Monday, the day the four police officers who are linked to the death of Ntumba were arrested, a student was shot and wounded in Braamfontein on the first day of the national shutdown of universities. 

Police released a statement distancing themselves from the shooting. The police said that none of their members who had been deployed to the protest had fired any shots. 

So, what are they saying effectively? That a passerby, someone, somewhere, decided that they were just going to take out their gun and shoot at students? I mean, what else can you say? 

The very same police who were out there carrying AK-47s intimidating students now claim that they did not use their big machines on the students. Sure. 

I walked with the students for the most part of the protest on Monday. I saw police using every trick in the book to scare them. 

By the way, students have a constitutional and democratic right to protest. It is not illegal. 

A police helicopter was deployed in an effort to intimidate the students. In some instances it flew so low that it was hard not to see it as a deliberate act to instil fear. 

And these, by the way, were young people who were not even violent in their protest. 

I have attended a number of violent student protests, but the one I attended on Monday was peaceful. 

The only thing students did was to block roads with burning tyres, rubble and rocks. That is what I witnessed. They did not burn buildings, nor did they damage property. The only inconvenience was to motorists when traffic stopped moving. 

This leads to the question whether the police brutality that we witnessed on Monday was necessary? One can interpret their ferocity as a message that students are not allowed to exercise their democratic right to protest. 

Protests, by their nature, will inconvenience others. And protests, by their nature, are meant to be disruptive. After all, a protest is not a church service. 

I witnessed how police came from nowhere while students were marching to the Johannesburg CBD. Suddenly officers appeared from nowhere and started spraying them with water, sending them in all directions. 

I saw a young woman fall and hurt her leg. Even with her bleeding knee, unable to walk, the police came and shouted at her to “Go!  Move!” She was later taken away by an ambulance. 

There was nothing untoward that the students were doing at that moment, except marching. 

The police brutality — particularly on black people — in this country is disgusting. 

A family is still grieving the death of Ntumba, who died after being shot with rubber bullets last Wednesday. Four officers being arrested for murder, attempted murder and defeating the ends of justice was still not enough to worry the consciences of the cops who continued their brutal behaviour this week. 

This needs to stop. Another person is going to die and Bheki Cele is going to come and tell the nation that he cannot explain it. 

We honestly deserve better as a country. A better everything. All of what we are subjected to is exhausting. It truly is.  

Keep the powerful accountable

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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