At the frontline with the students
As I sit here today, the morning after the event at parliament, I am still affected. I struggle to come to terms with the events of yesterday. And I hope that writing my story will help.
I was a bit apprehensive about what to expect when I headed to the scene of the protests yesterday. I had been reading reports on the protests across the country since they began about a week ago, and since I am located in Cape Town, I knew that I had to somehow bet closer to the action.
I first arrived at Forest Hill a UCT residence in Mowbray, where I tried to establish where the protests were taking place that day. After a few calls, and through the help of social media, I established that they were headed to the gates of Parliament and quickly made my way there.
Arriving at the city centre, I met up with two female students from CPUT, who had arrived on the same taxi that I had been on. I overhead their conversation and realized that we were heading the same way. The journalist in me jumped at the opportunity to ask a few questions, and I started the dialogue asking: “Yoh, I hear you guys are really angry about this whole thing.
“Anger is not really the word to describe us,” said the one student.
“We are just frustrated by the current state we are in. I mean, we can barely afford our fees and we will not be able to afford this increase either,” she explained.
Cheerful chants, laughter, interesting placards and a “vibey” atmosphere welcomed me outside the gates of parliament. Is this really where the “mayhem” is? I thought. I start making my way through the clusters of people. My rough estimate would put the numbers around 800 give or take. Standing just outside of the gates of Parliament, on Plein Street, I could see a group of Policemen standing in front of the gates of parliament facing the protestors. Still the atmosphere was peaceful.
Taking a closer look into the crowd I noticed the presence of older people, who I gathered were parents.
I spoke with one of the parents, Mandla Simelela, who said that he felt obliged to be there.
“This fee protest affects us because, we as parents, are the ones who have to pay these monies. Some of us have taken out loans to put our children through school. We can’t sit back as parents and leave it to them, these children who comes from us. Holding back and staying away means we are depriving our children of a bright future. These are things which affect us deeply,” he said.
My attention was captured by chants of “We want Blade, we want Blade”, rising from a group of students standing before the statue in front of Parliament.
21 year old Siyasanga Nokama, one of the young students standing on the side, after cheerfully agreeing to speak with me adds, “I am a student from CPUT, and we are here to voice out that we’re trying to get into talks with the Minister of Higher Education and the Minister of Finance. We’d like to tell them that we are unhappy with our fees and that we do not want an increase because we can’t afford it. I am not under the scheme that pays for students. Currently, I am in debt because of my fees. I got a bursary at the beginning of the year but it only covered my class fee and not my tuition fee. I’m here to say no to fee increment and zero increase. Only one of my parents is working. My dad is unemployed. My mother is employed by government, but having to support three kids, a husband and her marital family is too much of a financial burden. If government can do something about it, please help out. We are here to engage in talks and not to loot or be violent,” she said.
As a born free, the fees must fall protest has been a first experience for Nokama.
“This was my first engagement with people my age. It’s been a great experience I have been so amped up. I actually jogged from our campus down here. I was amongst the first people and the thousands of students behind me amped me up. I am glad that soon I will say that I was part of it. That I voiced my thoughts and my views,” she said.
At this point it was clear that more students had joined. Frustrated at their plea of getting to speak with Minister Nzimande falling on deaf ears, the students took the protest from Plein Street, down Spin Street and then to Parliament Street, in the hopes that they would find success.
As we were moving, the surrounding shops and businesses had closed their doors, and employees were watching us through the windows.
What happened next is what I would describe as the pawpaw hitting the fan.
I’m standing on Parliament street and in front of me a group of students are being denied access onto the Parliament grounds. Shortly, after that students start withdrawing from the gates, rushing past me, down Parliament Street and then making their way back again towards the gate. This cycle repeats itself over and over until a miracle happens.
The gates of Parliament are opened, and students head in with their hands in the air signifying that they are not armed and are not there for violence.
My gut tells me not to follow them. I’m not the only one sceptical of this sudden development. Some students decide to wait outside.
Within minutes, a police van drives up the street and policemen step out of the van. The gate gets closed.
I hear shots coming from inside the gates.
Some students, who are now standing at the gate disperse and begin to run down the street, but shortly return when they realise the shots were only targeting students who were inside.
The air fills with smoke from the guns being fired.
The gates are opened and students who were inside start rushing out towards safety. Some of them were hurt. I see one student limping, his ripped sneakers in his hands. The stun grenade had removed the skin on his leg.
What was going on, what had happened inside?
“The gate was opened for us to go in and so we did. We walked in with our hands up and I was not even aware that the gate was closed behind us. Before I knew it, I heard the shots,” said a student.
He added that the personnel who were inside did not look like normal police.
“They looked soldiers or something,” he said.
I notice a familiar face, Wandile Kasibe, who said, “They have captured Chumani, Kgotsi and another comrade. We were all pushed outside the premises of Parliament”.
As the day draws to an end, there is still no word on the missing student leaders. I later found out that the gates were opened the same time that the Minister began his budget speech.
We found out that Chumani, Kgotsi and the others were taken to Camps Bay police station.
The tempo of my heart rate remains unchanged. My hands still have not found balance despite the fact that the story is now written.
Photos by Wandile Kasibe