Police officers acted with unjustified and excessive force when responding to last year’s #FeesMustFall protests at Wits University, reveals a new report. And not only did the university fail to provide adequate healthcare but police may have actively targeted the volunteers who stepped in to fill the gap in medical services.
Experts have condemned what they say was an unwarranted use of police force, including the misuse of stun grenades and tear gas, in response to 2016 fee protests in a report by the public interest law organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri). Released on Tuesday, the report also uncovers that Wits University had no plan in place to provide healthcare services to students and alleges police may have actively targeted those providing first aid to students, including Wits medical students.
During the protests, students suffered physical injuries such as shallow wounds from rubber bullets, rashes from tear gas and burns from stun grenades. People also reported mental health issues including increased anxiety, an inability to sleep and even increased thoughts of suicide.
As demand for medical care on campus surged, Wits University did not extend the operating hours of its on-campus clinic, which was reportedly short-staffed and had little access to campus vehicles to transport injured student to hospital, the report says.
“The capacity of staff to provide health care services was strained by the additional responsibilities in the wake of the #FeesMustFall protests, the sometimes fearful atmosphere and budgetary constraints (as university budgets to provide additional services were not increased in response to the crisis),” states the document.
Meanwhile, first aiders were prohibited from going to injured students and in some incidences the volunteers were shot at by the police while they were on the way to providing medical care, says Precious Chipulu, a medical student and volunteer first aid responder.
“There were so many times we had to be on the streets, we would call the ambulance but it wouldn’t come because even they were also concerned for their own safety,” she remembers. “The university had so much money for private security but didn’t have the budget to increase medical services.”
“It’s one thing to be tear-gassed by the police, but to also be denied access to medical attention afterwards makes it a double harm,” says Wits professor of family medicine and co-author of the report Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven.
The report also reveals that police shot at the campus clinic. Rubber bullets, in addition to rocks, shattered clinic windows. The head of the clinic at the time said that this affected treatment.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening. The student I was treating became so afraid, after thinking he was coming to a safe space to get treated for a rubber bullet injury. We both dove under the examination bed to avoid getting injured.”
Meanwhile Mtwakazi Bula, who was also a first aid responder, says the lack of mental health services was significantly overlooked.
She explains: “Many students developed acute panic attacks and some needed counselling from the sexual harassment they were experiencing. Many students have post-traumatic stress disorder from the excess brutality from police.”
In response to the report, Wits University senior communications officer Buhle Zuma issued this statement:
“The university’s management does not see Seri as a neutral partner in this matter, and the report can therefore not be seen as a result of an independent investigation.
“Management views Seri as an entity that attempted to paralyse and undermine a public institution during the 2016 protests. Seri served as legal representation for individual students who wanted to bring an end to the university’s 2016 examination process, an outcome that would have compromised the graduations of thousands of students, the majority of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds. Management is also of the view that Seri’s silence around the violence and arson that occurred during the protests compromised its progressive credentials,” she wrote.
At the report’s launch, Seri executive director Stuart Wilson says that Wits University had received the report before its launch. Wilson says he personally penned an email, with the report attached, to Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib and vice-principal Tawana Kupe. The report has also been given to the acting national police commissioner, Seri says.
Zuma denies this.
Zuma explains: “That the report was published by the Mail & Guardian before it was shared with the university’s management, brings the motives of both Seri and the Mail & Guardian into question.”
She added that despite the university’s misgivings about the document, the school would read the report and incorporate any lessons learned before passing it onto the South African Police Service.
Police must serve, protect – and provide first aid
Seri executive director Stuart Wilson said that the response by the university and police betrayed little concern for demonstrators. Meanwhile, there had been little discussion on campus about how to ensure that students stayed safe while exercising their right to protest.
And it’s not just universities that have an obligation to keep protesters safe, Baldwin-Ragaven warns. Police also have clear guidelines that stipulate they are responsible for providing medical assistance to anyone who was injured by their use of force.
“If a police officer shoots you, that same police officer is obliged to give you first aid,” says Baldwin-Ragaven.
Seri’s report found that in the case of #FeesMustFall had planned poorly for the adequate provision of aid to those injured. Here, the research echoes the Marikana Commission of Inquiry report, which recommended that in “an operation where there is a high likelihood of the use of force, the [police] plans should include the provision of adequate and speedy first aid to those who are injured”.
Authors of Seri’s latest report, including human rights researcher Mary Rayner, say they hope by documenting and corroborating the excessive use of force by the police in last year’s protest will avoid further violence in the future.
They also recommend that the university includes courses on ethics, human rights and humanitarian principles such as the neutrality of healthcare workers in emergencies into some curriculums. The team also recommends that trauma counselling and academic support must be available to the more than 140 students who volunteered as first aid responders.
Meanwhile, should protests flare over fees again this year, Baldwin-Ragaven warns Wits University is far from ready.
She explains: “We cannot allow for the politicisation of healthcare. It’s the university’s responsibility to ensure that they are ready to provide medical care in times of protests and unrest on campus. We are not prepared. We need a plan.”
Reporting by Pontsho Pilane. This post originally appeared on Bhekisisa.
[11:30am 2 November 2017: This article was updated to include a right of reply by Wits University not originally included. Bhekisisa regrets the error.]