by Patrick Wells
Rubber bodies met Rubber bullets,
They never seemed to disagree,
No one liked, or understood it,
But we were told, we were free.
After the wound is no longer visible or has been forgotten, only the voice of the wounded can tell the story of the wound. The #FeesMustFall protests of 2016 left many wounded and many of the wounded voiceless. These voices are still here, and so are the invisible wounds. Wounds that cannot be seen but also cannot be healed. Who inflicted these wounds? Why inflict them in the first place? The answer to the first question is simple: it’s those chaps they call the Saps. The loyal soldiers of the state’s hate, and also the ones expected to keep us safe. The next question is central to a contradiction facing many South African students across the country. It is painfully complex. Why inflict a wound on people who are in no position to, and have no intention to, inflict a wound on you? More importantly, why are the people our students rely on for safety the very same reason our students feel unsafe?
“The minute you bring police onto campus immediately, or you bring violence into the picture when there wasn’t violence, you are already laying the foundation for violence and the standard for violence to be there,” said activist Kiara Evans in response to a question concerning the use of rubber bullets and tear gas during protests. Kiara explained that the use of weapons was counterproductive, as they created a violent atmosphere as opposed to dissolving it. The militant approach of the police makes it seem that our students are viewed as rebel soldiers rather than citizens exercising their constitutional rights. If our students are truly endangered, isn’t it in our universities’ best interests to protect them?
According to activist Nomphumelelo Babeli, institutions are not as benign as we might think they are. Babeli stated that Rhodes University has signed an interdict that allows police presence on campus, an agreement that has never existed at the university before. Babeli believes that the interdict marked the beginning of the militarization of university campus during protests, and perhaps marked the end of a once healthy relationship between the university and the student body. An interviewee who chose to remain anonymous implied that students, in the way they speak, do not view the university as an institution that they are a part of. Students now seem to believe that the university does not represent their interests, and is not particularly concerned with their safety. So, if the university and the police will not protect our students, who will keep them safe?
The most chilling reality that has presented itself during the protests is the willingness of police to engage in violence. All consulted parties compared the #FeesMustFall protests to the shooting of mine workers at Marikana in 2012. Kiara believes that the state has not completely managed to decolonize its Apartheid-style approach to policing. This seems not only to be a comment on police brutality, but also a broader comment on the state of South African democracy. If the policing at student protests is consistently compared to that of the Marikana massacre, it has to be asked, just how violent are these police, or has the Marikana comparison become a bit sensational?
Brian Garmen, a Journalism lecturer at Rhodes University, was shot during the #FeesMustFall protests while trying to rush students to safety. “It pissed me off, I was extremely angry!” said Brian. He explained how he believed that, “The police presence escalated things, the escalation was giving a kind of radical violent voice within the protest movement much more legitimacy, much more sway.” It has been confirmed that the policeman who shot Brian was drunk at the time, and not in police uniform. This is an alarming matter that should not be taken lightly. A question that many people ask is, if we do not use rubber bullets and tear gas, how else can police be expected to pacify a situation? Brian suggested that simple weapons such as pepper spray could be used, and the entrances to potentially at-risk buildings could be blocked, rather than shooting at the students trying to enter them. Babeli described the police as tools used to “silence” rather than protect. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the role of our police and engage the whole nation in this reevaluation.
As the academic year progresses and the economic situation in the country declines. It is possible that more unrest can be expected. The question is, will the government listen to the cries of the wounded this time, or will the wounded voices be silenced again? Hopefully, this time it will be different. Hopefully this time the voice of morality will overpower the voice of oppression. Hopefully, there will be no more Marikana in Makana.