Tragic events at Shimla Park

Attacks at rugby game strikes at heart of UFS

The attack on students and workers, protesting at a rugby match in Bloemfontein on Monday night, has struck at the heart of a university that is trying to shake off its racist past. Reporters from The Journalist reflect on developments in the last few days.

Rector and Vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), Professor Jansen, has strongly condemned the vicious attack on protesters at Monday night’s campus rugby game. “Nobody, I repeat nobody, has the right to take the law into their own hands,” he said. “While the protests were illegal and disruptive, it did no harm to the physical well-being of the spectators,” he said.

His statement came a day after the tragic events at the Varsity Cup rugby match between NMMU (FNB Madibaz) and UFS (FNB Shimlas) in Bloemfontein where spectators beat up a group of students and striking workers. The images of white spectators kicking black protesters went viral and struck at the heart of a university that has proudly struggled to shake off its racist past.

Protesting students and workers had invaded the field about 19 minutes into the game and brought the match to a halt. Reporter Linda Fekisi witnessed the events and describes what she saw on these pages.

Professor Jansen was seated on the stadium benches and the protesters were hoping to bring to his attention the seriousness of their campaign. At the same time, they knew that they were also courting the possibility of widespread media attention since the event was televised nationally. They were aggrieved that the vice-chancellor had time to attend the rugby match but no time to meet with them.

Jansen said no stone would be left unturned to find those who acted so violently. It is understood that a group of white students, some of them from the residence, Vishuis and older spectators were involved in the beatings. This will only become clearer once the university completes its investigation into the tragic event. “I cannot over-emphasise our level of disgust and dismay at the behaviour of the spectators,” he said. “It is NOT what the University of the Free State (UFS) is about and we are working around the clock to gather evidence on the basis of which we will pursue both charges and, in the case of students, also disciplinary action on campus.”

These events transformed the protests for insourcing of workers into something else. They touched a raw nerve bringing painful memories to the surface, leaving many enraged. Recognising this, Jansen said it “not only opened old wounds, it trampled, literally and figuratively on the dignity and humanity of human beings.”

He did not leave the protesters off the hook. “At the same time, the invasion of the pitch is also completely unacceptable and we will seek evidence on the basis of which we will act against those who decided to disrupt an official university event,” he said.

The SRC President, Lindokuhle Ntuli, took the unprecedented step of writing an intensely worded letter to all deans spelling out the implications of these events for race relations. He was one of the protesters who disrupted the game on Monday. Last night, his voice rang out in song as students gathered in protest at the residence, Tswelopele situated across the main entrance to the university. At the entrance, a crowd of worshipers gathered at the same time and prayed for peace at the university. They were members of the Christian Revival Church of Bloemfontein. This morning, another group of Christians will pray at a side gate near the Roosmaryn residence.

After the protests at the rugby stadium, black students regrouped on the campus and emptied litter onto the food court of the campus. They threw stones breaking windows of Vishuis. They then went onto the main building where they threw litter at the door. Eventually the university called in the police to stave off a further confrontation between black and white students. They formed a barrier between the two groups.

A racially mixed group of students then arranged themselves at the side of the two opposing groups and started praying intensely. It was quite a sight. The police fully armed, students praying, university staff hovering as they tried to keep the peace and an array of students who were spectators. Then came some stones from the upper floor of Vishuis into the black group and they started running in all directions. At that moment police shots rang out and they chased the students away from Vishuis. While this was going on, the white group drew back and started singing the old South African Anthem, Die Stem.

Running confrontations between the police and protesters continued way past midnight on Monday. By Tuesday, with all classes suspended for two days, a few students managed to topple the statue of CR Swart, who was president of South Africa at the time Nelson Mandela was arrested and charged with treason.

Members of campus media – IrawaPost, Kovsie FM and Kovsie TV combined with the The Journalist’s Free State circle to tell stories of the ongoing protests.