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Rhodes: A Police State of Mind by Mishka Wazar (The Con), 26 October 2016

27 October 2016

To say that the police are using disproportionate force at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR) is to understate the immense brutality and repressive tactics experienced by students and staff.

The past two weeks at UCKAR have seen violence, damage and the biggest show of carelessness witnessed at this campus all year. Student protestors at UCKAR have decided to protest with full force and little strategy after weeks of now-void negotiations and the deluded nonchalance of university management in addressing the demands and concerns of students. Student leaders declared at a meeting that there would no longer be barriers to the methods used by protestors, and that anyone was welcome to perform their anger in the manner they see fit. At a university with already incredibly fragmented political loyalties and ideas of strategy and goals, this added to the divisions between students.

Student protestors are not innocent in the events of the past two weeks. There has been immense damage inflicted on university property, beginning with broken doors and windows on campus last Monday. Students did throw rocks, burn benches and break glass. A building was doused in petrol, computers at the labs were broken and splashed with water, lamps on the street were kicked off and bathrooms were flooded.  However, that is no excuse for the actions of police, who have quickly overtaken the university, policing our behaviour, our bodies and arresting us at the slightest provocation.

The police have shot at students with impunity, as they run away with hands up in the air. They have teargassed the campus so heavily that the smell reached the Peppergrove Mall in town. They have shot stun grenades so often that the dogs on campus no longer flinch. Students are disappearing, while outside residences waiting for girlfriends and walking back from Pick ‘n Pay loaded with groceries, to appear at the police station a little while later.  All the while, the university sends emails and text messages stating that everything is fine. “Business as usual.”

Last week Tuesday, the Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela spoke to radioshow host Eusebius McKaiser, completely ignoring the fact the South African Police Service (SAPS) had brutalised students at his university. Today, students received messages from the university stating that the SAPS denied shooting into residences, and therefore there will be no investigation.  The proof is in the bullet marks on the walls.

The most disturbing actions by the police so far have been the targeted attacks against student journalists. The UCKR is known for producing excellent journalists, and the Journalism School is the best in the country.

Naturally, there are many student journalists working and reporting on scene. The two student press organisations, OppidanPress and ActivateOnline, have been facing terrible police repression and brutality. We have been shot at in targeted attacks against media, teargassed and told multiple times to stop taking photographs and videos and following the police.

On Tuesday, a concerned staff member from the journalism department was shot in the arm while recording the police, the first incident of police brutality against a lecturer. A student journalist from ActivateOnline, wearing a press badge, was arrested for taking a video.

The police stated that he had thrown a rock at them. This same journalist stood with me last Saturday as the same policeman who arrested him threatened me with arrest for taking a video.

I have been threatened with arrest by police three times in the past two weeks for tweeting near them and taking videos, and after arresting my friend, that same policeman aimed his gun at me and shot. He knew we were journalists. We had not broken the law. Many of my fellow student journalists have been targeted, shot at and threatened with arrest. Strangely, we have also been threatened by students when reporting on damage and violence. It appears that neither side wants their actions reported on.

There are more than 20 students arrested at the University Currently Known as Rhodes. Tonight, my friend sleeps at a police station, on the same beds that many of his friends have been forced to sleep on the past few weeks.

Our management is silent, the only sign that they know what is happening are the new gates erected around the library, presumably to prevent books from being burnt.

They are symbolic, these gates. Students joke that they make the library look like a spaza shop, but they mean something dangerous. They are physical barriers between us and the knowledge found in books. The knowledge of the academy, which so many of us are excluded from. The gates are the physical reminder that many students in South Africa are barred from education.

These gates were put up to prevent books from burning, but at UCKAR, the youth are the ones burning.

The tactics and strategies used in the fight for free education are not succeeding, indeed they are exacerbating the problem. The police are patrolling again tonight (Tuesday), our campus completely militarised, to stop and frisk us as we walk around our campus. To threaten us with more pain, more violence, more imprisonment.

Tomorrow, no one knows who will be next.