NEWSFLASH: One person killed as police use force to disperse Wits students protest

One person was shot and killed amidst ongoing student protest action outside the Braamfontein campus of the University of Witwatersrand. 

While details remain sketchy, one person has been confirmed dead following an attempt by police to disperse a student protest. Wits students have been protesting a number of issues including access to technology to aid remote learning and financial exclusion. Protesting students have called on the university to allow academically deserving students to register for the year even if they have an unpaid balance on their student account. While the protest has been ongoing for several days, on Tuesday, March 9, police used rubber bullets to disperse protesting students. Several students were also reportedly arrested. 

Read more: Top of the Vox: What’s happening at South African universities?

A day later, Wednesday, 10 March,  protesters regathered on the streets of Braamfontein, and once more police attempted to disperse the protests. This time, stun grenades were also used.  

A student journalist covering the protests was injured and another person was killed.  – it is not clear whether the person killed was a student or a passerby. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have condemned the reported killing of the person. They said it does not only represent tragedy but also represents a blood thirsty government.

Cebolenkosi Samuel Khumalo, chairperson of Wits (South African Students Congress (SASCO) SASCO and the Wits Progressice Youth Alliance (PYA) spoke to The Daily Vox from the scene. He said students are waiting to be addressed by someone from the department of police about what took place. According to Khumalo, the police dragged the person and then shot at them. 

“We are going to continue fighting until our demands are met,” he said.

The South African Police Services have yet to put forward their version of events. Netcare 911 spokesperson Shawn Herbst told TimesLive they responded to the shooting just after 10am. Herbst said the man was struck twice by rubber bullets but unfortunately succumbed to his injuries. 

The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) has condemned the shooting of the female student journalists by members of the police while they were recording the student protests over the financial exclusion of some students. SANEF has called on the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the National Police Commissioner to investigate the brutality of the police who endangered the lives of all journalists that were reporting the student protests.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions are planning to hold a picket outside the Central Johannesburg Police station against police brutality and in support of students.

Wits University senior management said they are “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of a 35-year-old man in the Braamfontein CBD outside of the institution this morning.” The university said they note with “deep concern the escalation of the situation which is regrettable, and we call on all persons to remain calm during this difficult time. The University remains committed to seeking creative, peaceful solutions to any outstanding issues in the higher education sector.”

Buti Manamela, the deputy minister of higher education took to social media to express his condolences to the deceased and his family. Manamela said: “Our department and ministry is doing everything to support the institution and the sector so that they conclude the registration process and resume the academic year 2021.”

The protests this week at Wits University – which were also joined by the Central Johannesburg College – have been taking place as the announcement by the higher education minister, Blade Nzimande that first year students might not be funded. Nzimande announced that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is facing a shortfall and might not have funds for first year students. 

Read more: First-year students in limbo as NSFAS faces funding shortfall 

Wits University said this week that if it continues to accept students who have historical debt, the institution will become financially unsustainable. The university says it is owed R1 billion in outstanding fees accumulated over the past seven years.

Wits University spokesperson, Shirona Patel, says the so-called missing middle remains a challenge. “These are students who have accumulated debt because they cannot pay and they do not qualify for NSFAS. That accumulated debt over the years. If we continue to accept students with this historical debt it means that the university will become financially unsustainable.”

“We do not want to be bailed out by government. We want to be a financially sustainable organisation. Yes, we want to keep the doors open for as many people as possible but we do have limited resources. What this means is call on the private sector and public sector to support those students in the missing middle,” explained Patel.

Speaking during a parliamentary session on Wednesday, Nzimande said he is in touch with all the universities – not just Wits university – “especially at this time of the year.” He said: “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem but don’t take that problem to mean everything is haywire.”

This story will be updated when more information is received.