Wits SRC will continue protesting for free, decolonised education

    The Wits SRC have released a statement on the events of Monday 10 October 2016, distancing themselves from acts of arson and looting. 

    Yesterday our campus once again resembled a war zone. As students we have once again been brutalised at the university we call our own. And for what reason? All because we wanted to enter Solomon Mahlangu House, what has come to be the home of the #FeesMustFall protests at Wits. Yesterday we experienced and witnessed the further escalation of violence at Wits University and on the streets of Braamfontein. We wish to state clearly what happened yesterday from the position of students and we hope to clarify some of the misinformation that is being circulated as fact.

    Student leaders made an appeal to the Vice-Chancellor, through the mediation team headed by Mr Tiego Moseneke (a former Black Student Society leader), that the Vice-Chancellor suspend academic activities for Monday and host an Imbizo where all students, workers, academics and management would discuss various internal issues. We are well aware that our struggle for free, decolonised and quality education is directed at the level of the government.

    However, for Habib and the management of the university to insist on opening the campus without any consensus and agreement is grossly irresponsible. We made the appeal for an Imbizo, just as we made an appeal for a General Assembly – so that we could discuss our issues as a university community and come to an agreement collectively about the way forward.

    We know that the university has now taken the side of the government and has chosen to be a gatekeeper of the unjust status quo. We also know that violence only takes place when police and private security are on campus. We have explained this to the mediators to try to make the VC understand what a grave mistake he would be making to bring police onto campus to ensure that the academic program continues.

    As the country witnessed yesterday, not only did the VC disagree with the proposal for an Imbizo but he also requested an even greater police presence at the university. We were told that we could gather and demonstrate in designated areas, including the Great Hall Piazza and the Library Lawns. Yet, students were greeted at the stairs of the Great Hall by a heavy police presence with police dogs and “nyalas”. Ironically, this was at the very place that we were told we could gather (the Piazza) where the first acts of police violence occurred this morning.

    Students were subsequently hunted down around campus by police forcing many to escape onto the streets of Braamfontein. The police then moved more tactical units onto the streets of Braamfontein putting school kids, shop owners and bystanders in grave danger. It is not possible to recount every story of violence and brutality from today, however we wish to highlight just a few. This includes the barricading of students into buildings and then using pepper spray and teargas inside these buildings (illegal according to policing standards). In a separate incident, students who had formed a human chain and peacefully sat on the floor to prevent a nyala from entering the Great Hall Piazza were shot at close range and stun grenaded, which is extremely dangerous and caused severe burns on students who will bear these scars for life when it was done two weeks ago as well.

    But perhaps one of the most jarring incidents, especially in the eyes of the public, was the brutality shown by the police towards a peaceful clergyman, Father Graham Pugin. Father Graham’s only crime was to attempt to create a safe haven and neutral space for all on the grounds of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church (next to Wits University), a space where students could enter without fear of violence, a place of refuge, or so we thought. By now, most have seen the image of Father Graham, in white, blood-stained robes after he was shot in the face at close range by the police. Father Graham was shot while his hands were up in the air, peacefully trying to prevent the police from entering the church grounds with an Nyala.

    Following this incident, police proceeded to chase students into Braamfontein. Many students can recount stories of being chased and hunted by the police through the streets of the city. The situation once again escalated and the use of force became even more extreme.

    This type of police brutality has become a daily reality for the students of Wits University, in our own home at the hands of our abusive father Professor Adam Habib. It must also be known that it has been four weeks and Professor Habib has still not spoken to us, his students.

    It is of utmost importance that we firmly distance ourselves from the burning of the bus in Braamfontein and the damage caused to stores in the area. We are confident that it is not our students who were involved in these activities and we distance ourselves from these actions. We believe that attributing these acts to students only furthers the attempt to delegitimise a noble and just cause and to criminalise us. In the four weeks of protest action at Wits University, there has been no incident of burning of any property by protestors. In the four weeks of protest action at Wits University, not a single shop was looted or destroyed.

    We would like to make an appeal to students who are attending classes to listen to calls of thousands of their peers. What meaning will your university degree have when you get it by ignoring the plight of the poor and working class of this country? How can you sit comfortably in a lab whilst just a few steps away, students are being victimised and shot at for calling for free education? It cannot be business as usual in this time of crisis. We all have a part to play in saving our universities.

    The university has continued the militarisation of our campus by stating that they will be suspending any student who is arrested. We find this ridiculous given that we have seen students being arrested at random without even knowing what the charges against them are. Yesterday alone no less than eight students were arrested, six of whom have spent the night at Hillbrow Police Station and two who have spent the night at Cleveland Police Station. Lawyers are working to ensure the safe release of our comrades. We are also appealing to the South African public to assist us in raising possible bail money to ensure the safe return of our students.

    Finally we would like all students to note that we are making trauma counselling and debriefing services available. Details will be posted about where one can access these much needed services.

    We will be continuing our struggle for free, quality and decolonised education. From Habib to the government, nobody has been able to sustain an argument against this cause. As we get closer to achieving our goal, the brutality increases. Victory is certain!

    Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia