||Seven hundred kilometers from Durban, the Marikana Massacre in Rustenberg seemed miles away from the student protests that took place at the University of KwaZulu-Natal this week. Yet as five students stood before the Magistrate on Wednesday evening, on charges of public violence, the two events became interwoven .
When the arrested students woke up that morning, they could not imagine that by lunchtime, they would be in jail. Peaceful protests, called by the student organization SASCO, had been happening for three days. Triggered by an armed robbery and spate of rapes at one of the university residences, students were demanding among other things, better security services, improved safety and maintenance of university residences.
But at approximately 12:30pm, police launched what seemed like premeditated assault on protesters. Students had just retreated to the sidewalk in front of the Howard Building. A barricade of riot police formed left of the building. In a bid to deescalate the situation, one SASCO speaker said, “We have not committed a crime, we will not commit a crime,” before signaling for the crowd to disperse to the right. A minute later, without warning, police fired gas canisters into the dispersing crowd.
What started as a day like any other, quickly transpired into chaos. Protesters scrambled over each other to get away. Those walking, were ordered to run by police in riot gear. Running students were arbitrarily shot at with rubber rubber bullets. “It was an impossible situation,” explains one witness. “If you don’t run you get beaten, if you do run you get shot.”
The streets were flooded in a carnival of security forces, each enforcing their own rule of law. The security guards from the private company Sharks, responsible for university residences among other facilities, were now decked out in grey overalls and riot gear. Others in white overalls formed the “Strike Force.” Then there was the South African Police Force, ultimately responsible for making arrests. Finally, there were the former weight-lifters-turned-bouncers dressed black shirts inscribed with the words “VIP Protection.”
Amidst the buzz of police and private security, one over-eager police officer was intent on making arrests. Spotting two students leaving campus for classes, he pepper-sprayed one young woman and man, before throwing them on the ground. Shortly after, he arrested a witness, followed by two passer-bys. Initially detained with obstructing justice and intimidation, their charges were trumped up to public violence.
The basis for arresting the "Wednesday-5" seems extremely dubious. The fact that they were actually charged, outrageous. With no evidence, UKZN recognizes that arrestees did not themselves commit acts of violence. It claims however, that by being in the vicinity of a protest that was not pre-approved by the university, where a small minority of people did vandalize property, arrestees are liable. In direct contradiction to an earlier statement by the police, UKZN further argues they have no power to drop these fabricated charges against students.
Students will have to appear before the Magistrate again for a hearing on September 6th.
For members of the university community fed up with missed classes, unaware or disinterested in protesters’ demands, or skeptical of the strategies and tactics used, the arrest and pending charges against 5 people who did not themselves commit acts of violence, may seem like no big deal. Some speculate that UKZN and SAPS are using this arrest as a deterrent for further protests.
However, if this is the case, it raises some underlying concerns. Is it acceptable for innocent students to be used as leverage by the university in a negotiating game with protesters? Is it acceptable for the state to pre-emptively and arbitrarily use violent force against peaceful protests? What does it mean for freedom of speech and the democratic process, when people cannot participate or witness a peaceful event without the fear of being burnt, beaten, shot or arrested?
As one international student concludes, "It seems that everywhere police have become the mediators of political and economic questions. Year after year, freedom of speech loses ground."