Following the morning’s mass action across Rhodes University campus, students gathered at Eastcape Midlands College (EMC) in solidarity with the EMC protestors. Police fired stun grenades in order to disperse the crowd that was allegedly attempting to enter the EMC premises. Rhodes Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela, who was on the scene, addressed the police and advised Rhodes students to return to campus. Megan Whittington, Thandi Bombi and Heather Cameron report.
At 11am, Mabizela addressed students regarding the issues raised during the morning’s protests. During this time, Rhodes protestors received news that police presence was increasing at EMC. Soon after, they joined to show their solidarity. Students at the EMC have been protesting for the past five weeks. Issues raised include the failure to receive reimbursement for accommodation costs; something, that usually happens at the end of each semester.
Rhodes students united with the EMC protestors in hopes of discouraging the unnecessary force used by the police. According to an eyewitness* tensions rose when protesters were chanting at the police to leave, and the police responded by driving towards the crowd in an attempt to disperse the protesters. Colonel Nel, who was in charge of the police present said: “It is my job as a law enforcement officer to actually make sure the law is abided [by]. This an an illegal protest.” The crowd responded that the only illegal act taking place was oppression.
Gates at EMC were closed to prevent students from entering the premises. The eyewitness explained that a man attempted to climb over the gate resulting in SAPS firing what what was initially thought to be rubber bullets into the crowd. However, SAPS have since stated that stun grenades were the only weapons used against the protestors.
One woman was injured when the crowd ran away panicked after the stun grenades were fired. She was not seriously hurt and was treated on the scene.
After being told about the situation at EMC, Mabizela quickly made his way to the scene. “I got an urgent message that the police were using stun grenades against young students here and was asked to come… I tried to speak to the management of the college. [We were told to come to constitution street] and when we were there they wouldn’t open the gate,” he said.
During his discussion with the SAPS, Mabizela expressed his distress regarding the treatment of both EMC and Rhodes students. “Their protest is constitutionally protected and to stun grenades and tear gas at them is something that has no place in a constitutional democracy,” said Mabizela, “I have explained to them that Marikana is very fresh in our minds and we don’t want to see another Marikana here.”
“I used the stun grenades to open the area in front of the gates. [We used] non-lethal pyrotechnical equipment… I didn’t fire one shot. The last time we used tear gas was 25 years ago,” said Nel when questioned about the use of force by Dr Mabizela. “It was absolutely the minimum amount of force I could use to get the people away from the gates.” he added.
After talks with Nel, Mabizela spoke to the crowd. He assured them that he had asked the police to exercise restraint and emphasised his wish for students to remain safe during the protest. He encourage them to move the protest back to Rhodes campus where they would be protected by the University.
“If you want to show solidarity and support to the young people in this college go ahead but please be sure that you are safe and secure. [The police] should keep their guns un their vans, in fact they shouldn’t even be here. I really hope you are safe. It might be better for you to move back to campus. I spoke to them earlier this morning and told them that they are not welcome to come on the premises of Rhodes university,” said Mabizela.
Shortly thereafter, protestors marched back to Rhodes campus. The protest is currently continues on Somerset Street.
*the eyewitness chose to remain anonymous due to the police presence.