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24 October 2016 07:09 (South Africa)
South Africa

Report: Days of violence and thunder at University of the Free State

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa
Photo of Shimla Violence via YouTube.

For years, the University of Free State (UFS) has swept racism under the rug, implementing only superficial changes, say black students. With frustration growing on campus and increasing levels of activism among black students at UFS and around the country, it’s time for equality, they say. Transforming the century-old institution might take time, but protesters are tired of studying 'under apartheid conditions'. By GREG NICOLSON.

NB: While the interviewees initially wanted their names published saying they have done nothing to warrant arrest or university action, despite the risks, they asked we use alternative names when they heard of the possibility that the SAPS might charge student protesters with treason.

Tshenolo Molise arrived home at 3:00 on Tuesday morning, 23 February. He sat down. His cousin Katlego Mokoena helped him take off his shoes. Molise lives in an off-campus student commune. In the lounge, an old TV hums with the volume muted. The students sit on velour couches or the open futon and flick cigarette ash into old coffee tins. Two bowler hats sit on the counter. Voile purple blinds soften the light from outside.

“Monday was very dark,” said Mokoena. “When I went to bed, I was crying. Is this really what it’s come to?”

The cousins, from Klerksdorp, are both in their second year at the University of Free State’s main campus. Before he arrived, Molise, 23, was a student leader on UFS’s south campus. Mokoena’s glasses are taped together after they broke during Monday’s violence. The 22-year-old was a member of the library club at her previous college. Until this week, neither cousin knew the sound of rubber bullets or stun grenades; but racism they knew well.

“In the beginning, we are sold this Kovsie dream,” said Molise, citing the UFS slogan, “That feeling only a Kovsie knows.”

When Mokoena first came to UFS on open day, residences were trying to recruit the new students. Eager to experience as much as she could, she approached a number of houses. When she asked about a female residence, known for being white, she was handed a pamphlet without explanation. She asked for more information and got no response. Another student, white and Afrikaans-speaking, approached her and was told about the activities and facilities available. When Mokoena asked again, she was told, “I’m sorry, we’re full,” before watching two more white girls sign up. When she complained, the girl from the residence became defensive and offered to sign her up.

“You’re basically invisible,” said Molise. “Unless you’re white. If you’re a black student you’re made to feel different. They make you feel like, ‘Okay I’m black and don’t mean shit and they're white and important,’” Molise adds. “You get here and you keep complaining about the same thing, over and over again. You can’t even say there are traces of apartheid. Like, it’s there,” said Mokoena, who wants to get a T-shirt modifying the university slogan to, “That feeling only a black Kovsie knows.”

Black students at UFS say that despite embarrassing incidences of gross racism, the university and Vice-Chancellor and Rector Jonathan Jansen has only made cosmetic changes while ignoring a system and culture that excludes them and favours whites. The university admitted its first black students in the 1990s and now the majority of its students are black. But last Monday, UFS’s ugly history and failure to transform were exposed.

It started with outsourced workers who were on strike for the third day, demanding the implementation of an agreement reached during last year’s Fees Must Fall demonstrations. They had been locked out of the main gate and marched to Gate 5. While returning, police fired stun grenades at the crowd and arrested the most influential member of the workers and student forum, Trevor Shaku.

“I knew if Trevor was arrested, the revolution would collapse,” said Moafrika Liphola, 22, who doesn’t use his real name in public and is a third-year governance and political transformation student and one of the leaders of the strike. He and others alerted the SRC who held a mass meeting at the amphitheatre.

They tried to engage Jansen, who students said told them he was too busy to bother with their concerns. Then they heard UFS rugby team the Shimlas would be playing nearby and agreed to demonstrate at the match, hoping to get Jansen’s attention in view of cameras and the media. They were outraged that while ignoring the outsourced workers, the vice-chancellor and other university leaders would be watching a rugby match.

Police confronted the students and workers on their way to the stadium. They tried to arrest SRC President Lindokuhle Ntuli. The SAPS tried to block them. They tried to threaten them, with one officer allegedly pulling out his handgun and comments overheard that suggested the SAPS wanted to trap the protesters and fire on them. They tried to taunt them, telling the students they were too poor to buy tickets to the match. They tried to arrest SRC President Lindokuhle Ntuli. The SAPS also tried to negotiate, promising to release Shaku if they turned back. The students and workers believed the cops had already chosen sides, and didn’t trust the offer. Some protesters were allowed onto the stands to watch the game. Others decided to stay outside. Some forced their way in.

Chantelle du Preez, chairwoman of Afriforum Youth’s Kovsies branch, was outside the stadium recruiting new members and trying to boost morale before the match. She organised a group to block the gates from protesters trying to force their way in, claiming to be protecting the rights of those inside. But the lines were then set, white versus black. Protesters claim a white executive from the Afriforum Youth branch either slapped one of them or called him a k*****. Du Preez denied the claims. The girl was then hit with a megaphone and as the Afriforum guard tried to grab the man who hit her, the protesters ran into the stadium.

Over a milkshake, Liphola, who other students call “The Green Blanket”, a reference to Marikana strike leader Mgcineni Noki, pointed himself out in a picture from the field on Monday night confronting white supporters. Du Preez said negotiations with the protesters failed when they were calling white supporters racists and supremacists. They had pipes and sticks, she said. “A lot of the spectators were there and sick and tired of not doing anything.”

Videos don’t appear to show any protesters with weapons, but they do show leaders calling for peace while supporters sang on the field. Liphola said he stressed the need for a peaceful protest. White supporters gathered and ran at them, tackling, punching and kicking the outnumbered demonstrators. Liphola was allegedly spear-tackled and punched in the face. There are claims a pregnant woman was injured. “They’ll do anything to protect the game, even violence,” said Liphola.

Mojaki Mothibi, who has been at UFS for six years, first on the extension programme before studying economics, is a former president of Tswelopele House and was one of the demonstrators who went to watch the match in the stands. With him were first-year students from his residence, one of the largest, predominantly black, men’s houses on campus. Watching supporters come from all sides to attack the demonstrators, he was scared, surrounded in the stands by whites.

“It’s basically mob justice. Anyone can beat you. Anything can happen. You could die and no one would be held to account,” he said, noting that it was the first incident of violence in the protests, and it set a precedent.

“[Jansen] made an allowance for it, saying this is how we resolve issues.”

The vice-chancellor and other university leaders were at the match and students have criticised them for failing to intervene and allowing the game to continue after the violence.

After that I think we realised Professor Jansen is failing us and Professor Jansen has to resign,” said Liphola.

When protesters, scared and injured from the attack by white supporters, parents and students, confronted police and security guards for failing to protect them inside the stadium, they were told they wanted attention or had brought it upon themselves, further entrenching the idea that protection and justice are for whites and rubber bullets and stun grenades are for blacks.

That night, the belief was confirmed.

“I’m not going to lie, our psychology was either they kill us or we kill them,” said Liphola, who said he was only speaking for himself. He was outraged at seeing elderly black workers attacked on the field and once back on campus decided to move from the student centre to Abraham Fischer residence, better known as Vishuis. Some protesters said they just happened to stop at the campus’s oldest, mostly white residence because it was on the way to a hall, others heard some of the attackers lived at Vishuis and didn’t want to allow them inside until they confronted them. Some black students simply joined the crowd because they were told it wasn’t safe to walk alone on campus.

At first, there were only a few white students there, but the Afriforum group heard students had gathered around Vishuis and went to support their students.

“It started as a violent protest and turned into a racial war,” said Du Preez.

Groups of black and white students confronted each other, with eggs, rocks and insults thrown, but black students who were outside Vishuis said the fight was far from even. They say police only fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at the black students (Du Preez said stun grenades were also thrown at whites), and pursued black protesters around campus.

Every black student Daily Maverick has spoken to who was on campus on Monday night said they saw white students and older white people who had come to support them with firearms. Some say they saw white men gathering outside the campus, arming themselves, putting on bullet-proof vests, and getting into bakkies to drive on to campus.

While students were hiding, they said they saw the vehicles pass with armed men who were neither security nor police. Du Preez denied any Afriforum members would be armed, which doesn’t account for others who might have come on campus to support the white students, but said the groups helping students leave campus during the week had bullet-proof vests.

Fearing attacks from white students and their families, students from Tswelopele House waited outside their residence for most of the night to protect themselves.

“I’m in the SRC building. I’ve just been shot,” Molise called a friend who was with his cousin that night.

“What do you mean you’ve been shot?” she panicked.

Molise hung up. Running from police, he'd been shot on the sole of his shoe and lower back with rubber bullets. Worried about white vigilantes and police, believing live ammunition had been fired, white students had started throwing rocks again, he said, so he hid in the SRC office with five other students. Occasionally, a student would knock at the door. They heard screams, students running and police shouting. After waiting hours, eventually Molise got home after a professor organised a car to ferry students off campus safely.

When Molise was finally home, he sat with his cousin and housemates talking about the night. Before crying in bed, Mokoena remembered, “The general consensus was the SAPS was there to protect the white students…”

“The white students,” Molise added.

Black students say nothing has changed in decades at UFS. While Lindokuhle Ntuli was elected SRC president with a majority of votes, and decisions on protests have been taken at mass meetings, management has suspected some students are closing the campus as part of a political agenda ahead of the local government elections. Ntuli is an ANC member, but SRC members at the UFS main campus are elected as independents and political parties aren’t as prominent as at some other varsities. The students who are demanding change say the current response from management reflects a history of trying to placate black students while protecting the university’s culture of exclusion.

After Monday’s violence, Jansen said the attacks at the rugby trampled on human rights, highlighting the challenges in transforming a century-old institution, and that the university was investigating cases of violence. He also suggested the protests were driven by agendas in the upcoming elections.

The University of the Free State in 2016 is the same as the University of the Free State in 1997,” said Ntuli. “The university still has a white Afrikaans policy. The university still has oppressive policies.”

UFS has 32,000 students and in comparison a small group were protesting last week. At Bloemfontein’s Cubana on Friday night, 20-year-old student Cynthia sipped a Flying Fish while watching barmen twirl flaming bottles of spirits. In her final year at the university, she said she’d like to support the protests, as most white students are racist, but she did not want to interrupt her studies and was worried about her safety. While the campus was closed last week, she used the time to drink and get high.

I don’t like the whole division... I like the peace,” said her friend, 21-year-old Mabatho. “I’m against the idea of we blacks being against the Afrikaans language.”

Mabatho, from a small town in Limpopo, said she didn’t really know racism until she came to Bloemfontein but doesn’t care about challenging the Afrikaans students or the culture because they don’t care about her so there’s no point bothering with them.

Afriforum’s Chantelle du Preez agrees there is racism on campus, but she noted incidents against white students. They’re not listened to in meetings, she said, and sometimes black men harass white women in joined classes where those who study in English and those who study in Afrikaans are mixed, meaning black and white are together, she said.

Many of the black student leaders on campus claimed whites fail to participate or attend mass SRC meetings where decisions are taken and said they didn’t even know Afriforum was on campus until recently.

“Seeing that T-shirt is very painful because those are the ones who beat us,” said Moafrika Liphola, pointing at a Shimlas shirt, passing the Free State Stadium where the Cheetahs were playing on Friday.

Last year, he started organising weekly classes on black consciousness at UFS. Coming from a small town near the Lesotho border, he saw protests growing up and is on the frontline at the UFS protests. “Me, I always tell them I have the scars of revolution in my back.”

Black students have tried to assimilate at UFS and it doesn’t work, he said. “They kill your culture. They kill who you are.” The university has allowed this violence by continuing to ignore black students’ concerns and allowing symbols of apartheid, such as the songs residences sing, the statues of leaders past and the alleged favour given to Afrikaans students, to remain.

Jansen’s support for social cohesion, the Rainbow Nation, comes at the expense of change, with ideas of togetherness a barrier to achieving equality, he claimed.

Mojaki Mothibi, the former residence leader, said black students talk about experiences of racism so much that the university cannot just ignore them. In his six years at the varsity, he has only ever had one black lecturer, who was from Zimbabwe. Students no longer apply for specific residences on campus but are allocated places in houses by the university, in the aim of promoting diversity.

Still, he counts the number of white students in Tswelopele House on one hand. Of 181 residents, five are white and all of them left campus last week during the protests. Despite the system that is now supposed to diversify residences, Mothibi believes white students and alumni are protecting the system of segregated houses and trying to maintain the cultures forged under white governments.

Students complain that efforts like the Human Project, aimed at creating caring students, the F1 leadership programme, and integration of residences have not changed anything between white and black students on campus.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, protesting students submitted a memorandum, but were unhappy that the university’s response tried to show sympathy but made no firm commitments. They tore down a statue of former president CR Swart and spray-painted new names after prominent black South Africans on buildings. On Thursday, they targeted the more prominent statue of Marthinus Steyn, the last president of the independent Orange Free State.

The university had however agreed to some of the outsourced workers’ key demands and in signing the deal they agreed to withdraw from the protests. Demonstrating students were determined to go on, angered by the police crackdown and what they saw as another failure from Jansen. Their core demand was that he should resign.

By Thursday, the university had a private security firm on campus and police were ready. Liphola, who was wearing a Steve Biko T-shirt, said when a police officer saw it he said, “All heroes must die,” threatening to do to him what apartheid police did to Biko.

While protesters were confronting security guards to get to the Steyn statue, the police started firing stun grenades and rubber bullets. As students dispersed, they say police and security pursued them, arresting anyone with a political party T-shirt, whether the person was involved in the protests or not.

Later, police raided residences, searching for protest leaders.

While students ran from the police, many sought refuge in Tswelopele House. After those students left, SAPS vans, nyalas and a water cannon were parked outside the residence. Suddenly, cops burst in, without any of the residence leaders unlocking the gate, spraying pepper spray and kicking in doors. They were looking for Moafrika Liphola, said Mothibi. Two students were arrested just for looking like Liphola, who has a beard and dreadlocks. Liphola was hiding in the ceiling of a female residence, and waited three hours until it was safe to leave. Over the weekend, he and other student leaders were afraid to reveal their location as stories of police raiding off-campus residences and Afriforum planning attacks circulated. The university has condemned rumours of attacks planned on campus and says those spreading them can be prosecuted.

“We are targeted by Afriforum. We are targeted by the same university that says they’re protecting us,” said Mothobi, who questioned why there wasn’t a response against the white students who attacked blacks at the rugby or those who also protested on campus.

In the lounge of his commune, Molise recounted Thursday’s events. Having seen the police response on Monday, he moved to the back of the crowd when he saw police approaching demonstrators near the Steyn statue. He wanted to leave campus. Worried about arbitrary arrests, he saw two girls carrying their luggage and asked to help carry their bags. When the police pulled up next to them, he said they were only trying to leave the university.

“The police were just grabbing everybody, even if you weren’t there,” he said, laughing at what he had to go through just to get off campus without being arrested.

His cousin, Mokoena, however, hadn’t seen how police would respond. Before they came to disperse the protesters, she was in front of the Steyn statue yelling at security for protecting a symbol of oppression.

Some students were throwing pieces of a dismantled metal artwork at the security officers. When Mokoena turned around and saw Public Order Policing in riot gear, she thought, “There were a lot of cops. I could swear they were there to arrest all 35,000 students!”

She ran but her glasses and headscarf fell. Thinking she was away, she slowed down before she was pulled by the hand.

“Don’t stop running!” someone yelled. “Just keep running!”

“But I'm blind!” she said.

“Just keep running!”

She evaded the police by sitting on a stairwell and watching them pass before making it off campus.

“I never thought that one day I’d be dodging rubber bullets and stun grenades for the same reasons my parents did before 1994,” she said.

On Monday, UFS reopened under tight security. The SRC president said a meeting with Free State Premier Ace Magashule and university management led to an agreement to try to engage on their demands without shutting down the main campus, but they still want Jansen’s resignation.

The university maintains its stance against violence, both at the rugby stadium and on campus.

Black students who joined the protests over the weekend, however, repeatedly asked three questions.

  • How can Jansen remain while he hasn’t done enough to combat racism in the past, didn’t try to protect students being beaten on the rugby field, and could victimise student protesters and limit their futures?
  • How can students, who last week were being attacked, go back to classes with their attackers?
  • And what’s going to happen when protests flare up again, with last week’s events fuelling demands for change? DM

Photo of Shimla Violence via YouTube.

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa

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