Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 13 February 2019

A glass door distorting the truth: Students and audience held hostage at UKZN

This is a true story. On the night of 8 February, 200 protesting students held more than 150 people hostage in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, during our performance of my latest show, Common and Class.

Just before the end of act one the chanting students (some carrying stones) started pounding on the glass doors of the foyer. The front of house manager talked to them — and they demanded that the show stop. If we complied they would not harm anyone.

At about 8.20pm. I was doing Sweet Transvestite in full drag as Frank n Furter and Gino Fabbri was in his Riff Raff outfit, ready to come on stage when the stage manager said to him:

We have a situation! The audience needs to stay in the theatre.”

As the entire audience was on its feet at the end doing the Time Warp, Gino said to me, “tell them to stay in the theatre”. I did and the audience waited patiently for 20 minutes. As the students became rowdier we led the entire audience, some of whom had real physical challenges, downstairs into the dressing rooms, blacked out the theatre and for the next two hours we waited for security and police to deal with the situation.

Thankfully, we had a policeman in the audience who managed to liaise with the police outside through what seemed to be communication spaghetti. Eventually, the students were dispersed and we could lead the audience out.

The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre staff were magnificent and the audience was calm and supportive. The students kept their promise and harmed no property and people — but all those people, who had no involvement with the university, were held hostage for two hours. What the story about the delay with the police and the campus security was, I cannot answer for.

We naturally cancelled all future performances at the Sneddon and within 18 hours had arranged a tour of six performances in three venues. I put the story out on FaceBook to try to sell these shows.

The reactions were fascinating. From supportive, to outraged, to ranting racism from white commentators who were not there. And I found that several black students answered with natural outrage at the outpouring of hatred and racism.

I contacted one of those students. Thuthu and I arranged to meet for a coffee to find out what the story was on the other side of the glass door that separated those protesting students from the frightened hostages inside.

Apparently, it boils down to two issues, both standard in South Africa — non-delivery and apparent corruption. So here is my understanding of the gist of the story from the other side.

The government has assigned money to accommodate all students who have qualified to attend university. These students come to Durban to chase the dream of education and employment from as far afield as Mpumalanga and Limpopo. And they arrive to find no accommodation has been arranged or paid for — and they sleep on the grounds of the university. In passages and on the grass, guarding their luggage.

If other students look for these homeless students and offer them accommodation, those helping hands are liable to be fined and expelled from the university. The “housing department” at UKZN has, over the years, apparently failed students repeatedly. Other students have allegedly fallen prey to attack, abuse and exploitation in all of its less salubrious forms while waiting for housing which they understand to have been promised to them.

Then there are stories of students being “sold” accommodation by some housing officials despite the government having already paid for this accommodation. Whether all these stories are true or not, the perception is that the weak and the vulnerable are being exploited — and their only strength is in banding together.

As a visiting production we had been at the theatre for five days with no disruption, so we were completely unaware of why these students were rioting. The students, most of whom were waiting for a room after two weeks, could see a production happening on a campus which was supposed to be closed.

Now let us not be naive. I am sure that some political activists saw a situation and exploited these first-year students to coordinate a riot. But when money is there, surely a short-term solution for registered students to sleep under shelter is not an impossible task?

Should the students have held us hostage, when all of us have nothing to do with the university, and damage the public’s trust in one of the city’s most important arts venues? No. We had a severely physically challenged wheelchair user and his parents in the audience, who have been deeply traumatised by the incident, and one survivor of a horrendous previous attack has been hospitalised since the event. However, despite the fear on our side, no one was physically hurt and no property was damaged.

But equally, should these young, poor South Africans, who have already overcome sometimes appalling educational conditions, be sleeping with their possessions out in the open in a strange city because they have qualified for a university education? No. They have the right to be angry. There are no winners when it comes down to it.

And for all those people who used this story to rant about undeserving, freeloading students who were “destroying our culture”, amid far more blatant racist attacks — I would ask this question: If students were locked out of their accommodation at Stellenbosch University, and a visiting black show had been closed by student protests — would the reaction have been quite so vehement, or even one quarter as racist?

Of course, there is a third side to this — the UKZN’s version, and I don’t claim to know what happened there — I am sure it is a bureaucratic nightmare. But whatever the reasons, two groups of people were held hostage on Friday night. And we need to work to make sure we always understand the other side — if we are to bridge the divide. DM

Ian von Memerty’s Common and Class is in KwaZulu-Natal this week, Gauteng from 28 February to 2 March, and the Western Cape from 6-11 March.

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