Defend Truth


South Africa is staring down the barrel of its own gun

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

As the student protests turn more violent and leadership becomes more nebulous, I have to ask: where did this pattern start, and who will be the ultimate victims?

There is a statistic that says guns kept for self-defence are more likely to be wrested away from the owner, and turned on them, than to be used for protection. A study in Philadelphia, USA, has it that an assault victim’s chances are some 4.5 times higher of being shot if they carry a gun. This detail has been playing on my mind a lot these last days, as the student protests have turned more violent, and rage against authorities has escalated.

A small caveat: I use the umbrella term “student protests” hesitantly. In general, it includes “FeesMustFall”, “RhodesMustFall”, “FeesWillFall” and various other movements and alliances, notwithstanding a great deal of infighting that has developed within the student movement during the course of the protests. When it comes to the perpetrators of violence, that is a whole other story. Firstly, these are a minority of the original student movement; secondly, their identities can be difficult to verify (after all, many of the most recent outbreak’s perpetrators turned up in balaclavas, and thirdly, not all of them are even students. The University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price, speaking to me on Thursday, looked extraordinarily tired as he told me that the university had its doubts that the majority of the protestors interrupting the Senate meeting on Monday were from UCT.

We simply haven’t seen that kind of thing from our students before,” he said. Many of the protestors, he said, had come straight from the Parliamentary protests and were dressed in Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) regalia.

Now, some weeks into the student protests, trying to track down some of the protestors who were most vocal early on is like catching smoke. One, who gave me his phone number, full name and email some weeks ago, on Thursday vehemently denied ever having done so. Another’s profile on WhatsApp has changed from a petite woman to a large, muscular man with pale complexion and shorn hair. She warned me at the time that she was scared, and would not be maintaining her contact details. A third simply disappeared. Fear is making all but the most official of voices transient.

Anyway, in this climate of fear, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of self-defence backfiring, and the way perspectives have changed since the protests started. Initially, there was a great deal of public sympathy for the #FeesMustFall movement, and police brutality was widely denounced, sparking a series of splinter protests. Protestors who were largely peaceful had been greeted by hails of stun grenades and rubber bullets; a collective shudder went down the spines of many South Africans. Some of the students – if a little hyperbolically – compared their experiences to Sharpeville or Marikana. Although not the same in degree, there was a similar flavour. Unchecked, one could imagine what direction that kind of crackdown on peaceful protests could go.

So, now it feels as though one is standing in a particularly nightmarish Hall of Mirrors, watching brutality repeated from angle after angle. Just weeks after the calls for an end to police brutality, stun grenades rained down outside Parliament again. And in a horrifying reversal, initially peaceful protests that had been becoming increasingly violent came to a terrible head, with reports that live ammunition had been fired at the University of Western Cape (UWC) campus. This time not by authorities, but at them. Bricks, knobkieries and sjamboks were added into the mix. A fire and medical officer at UWC had been rushed to hospital after being “attacked and badly assaulted”, Vice-Chancellor, Tyrone Pretorius, said.

Poignantly, after an eerie quiet had descended, morning chapel assembly was held for UWC’s Christian students, where those gathered asked the higher power they still believed in, for help.

This time, the comparison to Marikana seemed a lot closer to home.

Students at UWC who were not protesting were locked in a room. Fires were started across campus. A residence was torched. The university alleged that a female security officer was held at knifepoint. A paramedic was attacked. Four security officers were injured. A student was allegedly hit on the head with a rock. Earlier on Thursday, students claimed a fellow student was in hospital after having been shot in the head with a rubber bullet. Terror was palpable.

So was rage. After the arrest of 15 students, who were released on bail, and set to return to court on 11 December, one student threatened – with thinly-veiled resentment – to watch them carefully for violations. “They have disrupted our lives for weeks,” he said.

Another student described the outbreak of violence as “heartbreaking”. “I support the cause, but damn,” she said.

One expressed resentment at the speed with which money had been raised to pay bail. “Raise money now to repair the university so that we can write exams,” the student said.

For other students, the issue of race was a charged one, particularly at UWC. While black students at other universities, such as UCT and Stellenbosch, had spoken throughout of an atmosphere of exclusion on campus, some students at UWC expressed anger at the implosion of structures on campuses where students of all races had traditionally had access to education.

We will not allow a small group of hooligans to ruin our UWC. [It was the] only university where a non-white could get an education,” one student said.

Others, however, still felt the anger and humiliation of clashes with authorities, and felt violence was justified. “Words cannot express what students went through at the hands of the SAPS,” one said.

And the university executive has received an ultimatum via memorandum: review residence fees and scrap outstanding student debt, or the mayhem will continue.

But here we return, again, to that first question. Following the outbreak of violence, one student, Zinzi Sixaba, told Eyewitness News on Thursday that the police response to campus protests had been excessive.

This is uncalled for. They’re sending police and brutalising students. I, for one, am calling on all the black academics at this institution to write a letter to the Human Rights Commission, because something needs to be done; people are being injured, we are being injured, and this is just the start,” Sixaba said.

So is all of this retaliation for police brutality? Or is it that police brutality has given protestors the impression that anything goes?

Or does it boil down to justification?

Are South Africa’s methods of self-defence finally backfiring?

Perception is everything, especially when you’re standing in a hall of mirrors. After a while, multiple images reflect each other over and over, and you’re not sure which reflection is bouncing off which.

Just a few weeks ago, police were the bad guys. Now a core group of diehard protestors are perpetrating violence, using the police’s heavy-handedness – fairly or unfairly – as an explanation. But at the centre of it, exams can’t be written. Residences and food services are at risk. Regardless of who is currently winning the duel, the students – those who are supposedly at the centre of the protests – remain the primary victims. And education, which a few short weeks ago appeared to be winning its terrible battle, looks to be thrown under the bus. Most disturbingly, as the drama of the violence unfolds, government seems to have slipped into the background of the discussion.

Is it the recent police brutality that started this cycle? Probably not. Is it South Africa’s long history of systemic violence that sparked both police brutality and violent protests? More likely.

Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20, and it is still those whom the protests were meant to assist who will suffer, until the core problems of poverty and a lack of economic opportunity are tackled.

What will become of the students who perform poorly in their exams, and lose bursaries or job opportunities?

Even if education opportunities are opened to all students, what will become of the graduates when there are no jobs for them all? The advantages of open access to university will be paltry, if all students do not have a solid school education to prepare them to succeed, as well as safe and tranquil places to study. Access to university is only the start. This revolution is not over.

The core problem – which is partly economic, and partly one of violence – is not solved.

And meanwhile, South Africa’s defences are being turned on her. We’re staring down the barrels of our own guns, and they have started going off. DM


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