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Arrests and tear gas as South African students protest for fee-free education

Organisers with the South African Fees Must Fall student movement are reporting police brutality and dozens of arrests at today’s March to Parliament for Free Decolonized Education – part of a nationwide series of protests under the Fees Must Fall banner calling for the decolonising of education, an end to outsourcing and the scrapping of historic debts.

After an initial 25 arrests at the beginning of the march, alongside several others who were detained on spurious charges such as “suspicion of carrying petrol bombs” before being released, a “truckload” of students were subsequently picked up later in the day, according to organisers. Thousands turned out to the march in Cape Town:

but clashes broke out shortly afterwards and what appear to be targeted swoops on known student leaders have allegedly been taking place – one organiser from Wits university was observed being picked up by a black police van  for “walking.” Shots rang out and teargas was fired into the crowd.

Writing on the Feesmustfall Twitter tag Aleya Banwari said: “Police [are] shooting at students for no reason and then hunting us down side roads – protect and serve who?”

Police vs students

Today’s clash is just the latest in an escalating history of violence against the campaign. On September 26th, a student protest and stay-away day was organised at Rhodes University. Students and lecturers who participated were met with shows of violence from police which were so outrageous, with shots fired, 11 arrests and several injuries, that even Rhodes management publicly stated they were “disturbed” by the incident, a video of which can be found here:

But less than a month later on Tuesday 25th, the saga repeated again as new protests broke out over plans by managers to crack down on students’ movements.

In a mass official email, it was explained as the academic year came to a close that the entire campus is to be covered with CCTV cameras, there will be pat-downs for all students entering exam halls, and all venues will be locked for the duration of exams. During protests which followed the road leading to student residences was barricaded, followed by a rolling police assault using teargas and stun grenades.

Journalism lecturer Brian Garman was shot in the arm while trying to get students out of harm’s way. “They gave no warning. We were trying to get inside. There was a funnel of about 30 people trying to get inside,” he told Dispatch Live. “A cop in plain clothes and short pants started the shooting. They acted excessively.”

Ten arrested students, charged with intimidation and breaking a court interdict against “disrupting academic activities” at the institution, will appear in court on December 7th.

What is Fees Must Fall

In a statement the group said:

Since the inception of Fees Must Fall in 2015, we have maintained the clear call for a Free Decolonized, Afrocentric education. This call is rooted in the liberation of Black people and the total dismantling of the anti-black system that maintains black oppression. We want a [decolonised education in a decolonised society.

Fees Must Fall is an intersectional movement within the black community that aims to bring about a decolonised education. This means that the Fees Must Fall movement is located as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate the western imperialist, colonial, capitalist patriarchal culture.

Recognizing that FMF is intersectional, it is therefore pivotal to respond to the call of insourcing of workers by institutions for a dignified salary. It is important to further note the violence of the state in collaboration with private security and university management, who victimise black workers and students. Those who have rallied behind free Afrocentric and socialist education now face expulsions, suspensions, academic and financial exclusion and dismissals. The excessive force of police and private security in dealing with students are unacceptable and has resulted in a number of injured students.



Superintendent Officer Mthembu

The following spoken-word about the September 26th shootings was produced by Leroy Maisiri of Zabalaza Anarchist-Communist Front (ZACF)

If our pain was turned into an art museum the most popular exhibit would showcase portraits of the South African Police Service with our bodies on the floor as their footstools. Our silenced screams chock up the airways in our throats, our tracheas burst out and with both hands we grab the artery veins in an attempt to contain the bleeding, trying to redirect this blood, this life back into the cause and yes, bang, bang, bang; you keep shooting and yes bang, bang, bang, we keep running.

But please first allow me to start this poetic prose in Joza extension 7, the peripheral of the township itself almost excommunicated from the centre of Grahamstown. Somewhere unclearly mapped by angry ground stones who share their space with the kind of dust that does not easily settle well on the road, is what looks like an afterthought of an RDP house. In it is Superintendent Officer Mthembu. A child of the working class. Mthembu on his tea breaks always jokes about how he wanted to be a lawyer, most of his stories start with the words “and during the apartheid…” he would recall those memories so well, remembering quite clearly all the fights, the protests, the revolutionary climate that engrossed South Africa. His stories would also always end with “…if only I could afford the fees in ’94, I would have been a qualified lawyer like Madiba”.

You would think that would be the cue for disappointment to enter the space, to remind him that he was just another causality of a system that did not care for his dreams, but like a comma with no manners, his smile interrupts his thought process joining his past failures together with the apple of his eye, his only beloved daughter Siphokazi, a final year LLB student who carries her dreams in the same back pack loaded with her father’s dreams and NSFAS loans.

On Wednesday the 28th of September 2016, Siphokazi has all the candles lit in their home, it’s still early not even dawn is aware of how the day will unfold. 4 am sharp the good officer jumps to attention, not waiting for the hot water that doesn’t exist; he tidies himself up and rushes to report in for duty. Siphokazi awaits the slow pace sun rise to commence before she can decide it’s a safe time to start the 10 kilometer walk to campus, she spent the entire night researching on interdicts, and the right to free education.

It’s nearly been two weeks since the events of 28th September she tells me, she says they ran in all kinds of direction that day, shocked at how something so small could hurt so much. The images rock her mind so much I feel like I am extracting a physical memory as it tears through her forehead and fills the room.

She takes me back to the lawns within campus, she points to the Drostdy lawn walls with such disappointment in their in ability to shield the students. On my right is a student I have never met before rolling on the ground as if he is on fire only trying to locate where the pain is coming from. On my left 9 students run into each other in chaotic harmony, stun grenades go off again and again. I feel anger and fear simultaneously race up to my temple. The corner of my eye catches two female students attempting to run in the chaos, both their hands find each other; they clatch on to each other as two lovers would in a dark tunnel, but the grip tightens, the hand holding generates sweat that turns into glue “don’t let go!” they both shout. I reach out my hand I want to tell them it’s all over now, that this is just a memory, that in this moment right now we are all in Siphokazi’s memory.

Truth is the police have been slaughtering generations long before we even started looking for our voices. That on most days standing on campus corners makes us feel like an endangered species, that at any point we can be left looking like red confetti splatted on a concrete sidewalk. That our voices sound unhinged, almost like the voices from the primary and secondary high school kids whose dreams are lynched on a daily basis. Dreams executed Monday to Friday by the failing education system. Such that by high school all we have is a large spectacle of hangings that occur at least twice a year –called exams.

There is nothing to examine if you cannot account for the massive unlearning that needs to occur instead all it is – is an execution. Bang, Bang, Bang! – shooting continues. The memory of September 28th feels like the first time the death of a close family member wraps itself around you.

All of a sudden I remember the most profound metaphysic question, “if a black body unarmed is shot by the police in broad day light, in front of everyone, does it make a sound”. Does it matter? Did it really happen? Working class struggle is not just a matter of theory; police brutality is absolute despite your level of awareness. It’s not about keeping the streets safe anymore; it’s about keeping them empty.

They make bullets different these days, these new bullets do not go in and out, they get absorbed in the body – same function as a tampon to suck and pull in all life. There is after all some reason why these bullets seem to fall in love with melanin given the way they pursue us, some reason why shotgun shells never run out for the working class. I guess it’s pretty hard to fight back when all you have are your fists and unhappiness.

Its September the 28th 8pm, Superintendent Officer Mthembu arrives home, extremely exhausted, he has scratch marks he cannot explain, probably another protester resisting arrest. He is greeted by the emptiness of the one bedroomed house. According to memory by now Siphokazi would have long been home and made him something to eat. He grabs his cell phone only noticing now that he hasn’t paid much attention to it all day. 19 missed calls from his daughter, 23 missed calls from a private number, 10 text messages all of them looking like an SOS, one reads – “hie sir your daughter was shot by the police today, police opened fire on us with rubber bullets unfortunately Siphokazi was in the front she got hit in the throat. She said if she doesn’t make it – it’s important you know she was fighting for free education for the both of you.

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