Chaos erupts in Johannesburg streets following student protest for financial inclusion
Chaos erupts in Johannesburg streets following student protest for financial inclusion. | Mfeka Mpendulo

Students face death fighting for financial inclusion

I did not expect my display of solidarity to end up in a bloodbath because of police brutality.

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First-person source
Bonga Makhanya is a student at the University of Witwatersrand. He is also a student activist and part of the University's student representative council committee.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — All I wanted as a Witwatersrand University student leader was for everyone to be allowed to register for the 2021 academic year despite their debt.

I did not expect my display of solidarity to end up in a bloodbath because of police brutality.

The peak of the protest was on March 10 at around 8 a.m. Armed police officers charged students with guns fuelled with rubber bullets because we were demanding financial inclusion.

After March 10 and several days into the protest action, at least one person died in the clash between students and police officers.

Escalation to violence stunning

On March 9, the student leadership decided our internal protest at the University of Witwatersrand was not effective in the early morning. We went on to Empire road, just outside the university, to shut it down. We had planned to only demonstrate on campus but, we were not getting any support.

Upon arrival on Empire road, we inhibited traffic flow on that road and other parts of the central business district. We marched and sang songs with lyrics depicting our struggle for education.

After some moments, some students and I went to occupy the medical school on different premises approximately 100 meters away. There were academic activities at the medical school, so we wanted to make our mark, claim our presence, and shut down the campus and all educational activities.

At around 7:30 or 8 a.m, we were moved by security because we were many students. The idea was to only demonstrate inside campus because we knew we would be safer. Eventually, security began to act.

Beaten by guards

I was beaten by security guards while marching inside the university. I still felt relatively safe because I was on campus, and I knew my life would not be in danger. That was the first act of violence directed towards the protesting students. Police officers also became involved in dispersing the crowds.

Then they opened fire.

I thought to myself, “we have just literally been shot at” and perceived the level of despair that I had never seen before, amongst students. The shooting did not last long but its effect demoralized me. Quickly after the shooting of rubber bullets, students gathered strength. After seeing people regain their energy, we all got back onto the street. 

Despite knowing police officers were going to return, I was ready for them. I must say police presence scared off a lot of people. Seventy percent of the people were gone after that. Once the police presence decreased, we reconvened.

The 20 to 30 students who were left had immense energy levels. So we decided we would return at 5 a.m. the following day.

Not expecting police presence

On March 10, we head on to our task in the early hours of the morning, not expecting to see heavy police presence.

Like the previous day, students gathered at a central point to eventually go back to Braamfontein to protest in the street.

Students marched, voices peaked we were determined. Braamfontein, the area where protests took place, is a student district. Students involved in the picketing were not just Witwatersrand students but students from surrounding institutions.

From nowhere, a large group of police vehicles pulled up. Without prior communication, any warning, or any warning shots, police officers opened fire on us and threw stun grenades.

Protesting students were not the only ones targeted. I saw civilians fleeing and members of the media fleeing. From my understanding, they used rubber bullets to disperse us. That’s what I saw; however, they are now investigating to determine if they used live ammunition.

Students ran away, but police went on to chase the students and shot them. It was not just trying to disperse the crowds.

Many students injured

A few of the students from our committee were injured. Many Witwatersrand students were wounded, with bullet wounds to their legs, arms, faces, and so on. People got beat up, too.

Then word came in that a man had died. Horror gripped me, but I could not believe it.

Did a man die from a rubber bullet to the wrong place, or was this live ammunition?

At this point, we had not confirmed if it was a student or a civilian, but for many of us, it was surreal.

They fired more shots, and we all dispersed into our different corners. About 30 minutes after, when it became safe to come out, I, with a group of students, reconvened and went to the scene where the man had died.

I got there with other students, and everyone could see the body. They covered the dead body in foil, and the mood of the people was rage.

People were angry, people were scared, some of them agonized. Once I saw people that I had not known in colors symbolizing their different political affiliations come to the scene to pay their respect, it all sunk in.

A man had indeed died.

Everyone was in shock

We all sat down and sang songs of sorrow. I looked around, and everyone’s faces showed despair. The quick action and destruction that was visible on the streets quickly came to a standstill. At this point, police presence decreased. Paramedics and traffic cops infiltrated the area.

Then I saw the energy pick up again. The death sparked a fire from the students that I had not seen before.

After they took the body away, we agreed to go back to Empire road. Protesters burned tires on the street, yellow blockades were placed around, and all over were angry students marching, chanting, and screaming.

At 3 p.m. the same day, I heard students say we don’t have any regard for our bodies. If they are going to kill us, kill us. If police officers are going to arrest us, let them.

Students block out traffic in Braamfontein, South Africa. | Mfeka Mpendulo

No plan for violence

In January 2021, I was involved in the planning to launch a campaign to raise money for students in debt.

The Student Representative Council found out that thousands of students needed to be re-admitted into the academic program. These students were not allowed to re-register because they had outstanding tuition fees. We began a campaign to raise money to cover their tuition fees.

As we approached February, we knew not all students would receive money to cover their fees when registration was drawing to an end.

Then we began to liaise with the university management. March 8 was the official close date of re-registration, we still had not heard from management, so our frustration grew, and the protest was in the works.

Rally started March 4

Orientation week began at the beginning of March. We took advantage of this as an excellent time to start our protest. An internal rally started on March 4. Students marched where the registration was happening.

This time was also where the student activations to welcome new students and returning students were taking place. That was the hub of the university at the time. While they performed registration and readmissions, a group of students and I protested during all that activity.

We planned to shut down the whole process associated with orientation week, and we did. We shut down the entrances and shut down any activity that was taking place. Protesting inside the university grew with people from all walks of life joining, black, white, Indian all people were involved.

The direction started to change. We did not get any sense of support or feedback, so we decided to go to the streets a week after demonstrating on campus.

Post-traumatic stress

The most obvious thing that I observed is that every time I hear a loud bang (whether big or small), it triggers a stun grenade’s sound.

This one time I was at a shopping mall on the weekend, and I saw a group of young kids running. They were running away as though they were playing, and they ran past me. I thought it was the police in the same way we ran during the protests, and I instantly tried to run away as well.

When I think about or see any quick movement, I get frightened. I try to respond by protecting myself, and then I realize it is only something insignificant — just like the case of the kids playing at the mall.

My reaction to the police is also quite different from a week or two weeks ago. When I see a police officer, I don’t feel as safe as I did before. For me seeing a police officer is triggering. I am quite affected by the violent ordeal which impacted my mental health.

All I hope is that it gets better over time, but more so, I hope our efforts in the protest were not in vain.

It is a bit disheartening that a few years after the fees must fall movement, a movement dedicated to eradicating university fees, we are back here, fighting for our right to education.

Every so often, student movements arise in South Africa due to the number of students who deserve to study but can’t afford to. As the amount of protests increases, so does police brutality against students. Students encounter heavily armed police, which often leads to tragedy.

In March 2021, Witwatersrand students protested over financial exclusion, that is, students excluded from participating in the 2021 academic year due to historical debt.

Student historical debt has increased over the years and is likely to increase following the financial toll to households due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

An analysis from 2019 shows students in debt owe over R10 billion. In 2021 reportedly, over 8000 students owed the University of Witwatersrand over R1 billion (about $67 million).

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is a government body that provides financial aid to students; however, because NSFAS is a bursary scheme, students are indebted to students after completion of the study NSFAS. Before the study, many students don’t qualify for NSFAS. Some students fail to complete their tasks in the designated period; hence, they do not obtain their qualifications and remain indebted to NSFAS.

Due to students’ inability to pay the debt, Universities often block students from re-registering, regardless of their academic performance, and withhold results and qualifications, leaving them stuck.

Reportedly universities have said they cannot exempt students of their debt as the subsidies per student that the state pays are declining, and universities will not manage to pay staff and administer services.

Following the March 2021 protest, some universities are allowing students to re-register. However, the cycle may soon play out again, in which students will again take to the streets over the inability to complete their tertiary education.

I am a South African based freelance journalist. I studied Environmental Science and Journalism at Monash University.