Academic staff were surprised to be not only caught in the crossfire, but to be among those in the line of fire, as public order police patrolled the Rhodes University campus on the afternoon of Tuesday 25 October 2016, using rubber bullets and teargas to disperse groups.
The police action began following a meeting on the lawns of the student union building that ended around 1.30pm Tuesday 25 October. The meeting was one of those regularly organised via social media under the banners of various Uckar (the University currently known as Rhodes) groups including Asinamali and #FeesMustFall.
A staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity said he’d heard differing versions from students of how the conflict started: “Some said the students started throwing stones when they saw the police; others said they started throwing stones after the police started shooting at them.”
The police said they had responded to disruption by students and the damaging of vehicles on the university campus.
Around 4.30pm Tuesday afternoon, *students set up two barricades in Prince Alfred Street on the Grahamstown campus.
A group on the west end prepared rocks and sporadically threw them in the direction of both Grahamstown SAPS and Public Order Police, who were gathered at the intersection of Prince Alfred and South Streets.
Another group that emerged later from the Steve Biko student union building built a barricade of upturned desks on the east side. The police were stationed between the two groups.
Members of the Public Order Policing unit walked or ran towards groups in the vicinity, using rubber bullets to disperse them. Some pursued students between buildings and through the undergrowth of the lush surrounds of the residences on upper Prince Alfred Street.
This resulted in hours of back and forth sallies between groups of *students and police. Students and staff gathered at various points to observe what was happening. Around 20 students repeatedly returned to gather at the eastern barricade, alternating with retreating into nearby residences.
A staff member’s vehicle was damaged when a brick was thrown at it around 4pm in front of the student union.
Grocott’s Mail saw two other vehicles being driven off the campus later, with dents and damaged windscreens.
“Some students from [Journalism] and myself were standing around the Journ parking lot watching down the road as things were developing,” Garman later told Grocott’s Mail.
The School is at the west end of Prince Alfred Street.
“The police started to move up Prince Alfred in our direction shooting randomly but also specifically towards us.
“It became obvious they were heading our way and [the group] started moving inside the building.
“[Another staff member] was holding the door open. I was at the back, ushering people in when a cop came in and started shooting at those of us who were still outside.”
Garman was struck by a rubber bullet.
“The skin was broken [at the point of impact], and now there’s swelling and a large bruise but no permanent damage as far as I can tell,” Garman said.
"I want to emphasise that none of those in that group were protesting."
A staff member whose office is in the vicinity of the Great Hall said he was walking alone there to retrieve personal belongings when a police officer pointed a weapon in his direction and fired two rounds.
“I wasn’t hit, but one was so close I heard it whizzing past,” he later told Grocott’s Mail.
Lecturer and member of the Concerned Staff Group at Rhodes University Philip Machanick, who is among a group that aims to act as peacemakers between students and police, was told by an officer that if he continued to accompany groups of protesters he would be viewed as being a member of those groups and treated accordingly. Grocott's Mailheard the interaction.
Information about injuries to students wasn’t available at the time of publishing this post. Some students were at one point gathered around a fellow student, who was sitting on the pavement. It was reported that she was not injured, however, but had suffered a panic attack.
The Rhodes SRC has condemned what they term the excessive use of force from police.
“We particularly condemn them entering and shooting into residences which are supposed to be safe spaces for its students,” the SRC said in a statement posted on social media..
Grocott's Mail was limited in our coverage of events to one area over an hour and a half and our reporter did not personally witness such incidents. However, GM did see police firing rubber bullets towards students standing in groups outside the residences.
The SRC asked sub-wardens to make use of the University Counselling Centre’s 24-hour line, saying its capacity had been increased to cater for the current situation.
In response to questions from Grocott’s Mail, the police said two people had been arrested in today’s incidents..
South African Police Service spokesperson Brigadier Selepe said they had responded to disruption by students and damage to vehicles on the Rhodes University campus.
“Students will be required to empty their pockets into plastic bags (will be provided) and to undergo a standard security pat down such as those undertaken at all airports,” the memo to students said.
No early exit would be permitted.
“For security reasons the opening and closing of doors will be limited. The venues will be locked down at the start and only opened at the end of the examination. Students completing early will be required to remain seated until the end of the examination.”
In a social media post the SRC wrote: “The new rules were drafted without any student representation present or without the consultation of the student body at large. The SRC was not invited to such a meeting, and therefore the SRC rejects these new rules… criminalizing students.
The SRC said while they were aware that security measures were needed to prevent disruption of the exams, they disapproved of “a large security presence and protocol.
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