Is This South Africa’s Tiananmen Square Moment?
Bryce Swerhun had spent most of his time in Johannesburg safely away from the sounds of explosions near the University Of The Witwatersrand (Wits).
But something drew him to the campus on October 10 as scores of angry students gathered in a large protest for the elimination of college fees across the country.
What Swerhun, a Canadian who is in South Africa doing field work for his PhD program at City University of Hong Kong, saw there was nothing short of government sanctioned violence against young people on a scale rarely seen in liberal democracies.
Student organizers of the so called #FeesMustFall movement warned private security gathered on the steps of the Great Hall at the center of Wits’ campus that some among their number may start hurling stones at them unless they opened the doors to the building.
By the time Swerhun entered through the visitor gate and walked upon the scene, some protestors were indeed throwing stones at the security guards.
Then the police got involved.
“I saw the water cannon truck shoot up and spray the students below,” Swerhun said in an interview with RISE NEWS.
Swerhun said that “several hundred” student protestors were in the area around the Great Hall at the height of the clashes and that police were being very heavy-handed in the way in which they were breaking up the group.
Tear gas canisters leaving trails of smoke as they hit the ground. Rubber bullets thumping through the air. People yelling. People running.
Through the chaos in front of the Great Hall, Swerhun said that he saw one scene that reminded him of the troubling racist past of South Africa.
A white police officer had a group of black protestors cornered while allowing other students to freely pass. When a group of white students walked behind the officer without being stopped, the cornered black students started to argue how unfair it was.
This is what has become of Wits, one of the world’s top universities. Sad no? pic.twitter.com/3ja1OfCV0g
— Sure Kamhunga (@SureKamhunga) October 11, 2016
At a certain point, Swerhun decided that he had seen enough and that he wanted to get back to the safety of his hotel room.
He walked behind the Great Hall, where he spotted a church where some students seemed to be gathered.
He thought that he could escape from the campus by going through the church.
“The priest then slumped over and then the blood was pouring out. They shot him because he defied them.”
What follows sounds like it is straight out of movie.
“There was a significant moment that reminded me of Tiananmen Square,” Swerhun said.
When he reached the church, most of the students in the area where gathered in a parking lot. There he saw a priest in white robes standing in the entrance.
“He [the priest] seemed to be making a statement, that he was there and it was a place of refuge,” Swerhun said.
But then a massive armored police vehicle started racing towards the church.
“It was moving at quite a speed and everyone is running away,” Swerhun said. “When I get behind a parked car, I see the priest put his arm and the vehicle backed up and left.”
Joy swept through the crowd but it was a short-lived feeling.
“Another armored vehicle came and started shooting rubber bullets at random, Swerhun said. “The priest then slumped over and then the blood was pouring out. They shot him because he defied them.”
Swerhun said that the shooting of the priest had a profound impact on the people who witnessed it.
“Some people got really angry and I saw someone say ‘call up the people with the petrol bombs.'”
“This was nothing but a brutal show of state force,” Swerhun said. “Those police in the vehicle were not in any danger.”
The priest was then brought into the church were he was tended to by private paramedics.
Despite being shot in the face with at least one rubber bullet, he was able to walk out of the church to a waiting car.
While the violence has largely been ignored by the world’s media, it shouldn’t be.
The issue is unlikely to go away even though things are starting to calm down on the streets.
Sure Kamhunga, a political commentator who has a large Twitter following said in an interview with RISE NEWS that the government should do more to end the clashes.
“Meet the student body. Listen to their demands. Offer a solution that paves way for mutual understanding,” Kamhunga said in way of advice to President Jacob Zuma’s government. “Students have already proposed a funding model and that is a good start to reach a common understanding and solution.”
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