Cape Town - Chaos erupted near Cape Town International Airport as more than 6 000 protesters backing the #FeesMustFall movement clashed with police, who fired stun grenades, rubber bullets and sprayed them with blue dye.
As the crowd retreated to nearby Bishop Lavis, there was pandemonium. Police gave little warning to protesters, marching 15 abreast on Robert Sobukwe Drive. An officer in a Casspir armoured vehicle announced “you must disperse immediately”, telling them their march was prohibited under the Illegal Gatherings Act. Then the firing started.
People fled in all directions as stun grenades and rubber bullets were fired.
Police then pursued marchers, some into an adjacent wetland, with most protesters doubling back across peak-hour traffic on the busy thoroughfare, which runs between blocks of flats, and running into a park where children were playing.
Several residents cheered on the students. One man, trying to get two small children out of the way of the charging police, screamed at them: “Why are you shooting at these young people who are peacefully telling the government what they want? Why don’t you go and shoot at the people who caused these youngsters to be upset?”
Other residents warned the police that people in the area would shoot back if any of the residents, especially children, were hurt.
Police took up positions opposite a field where protesters regrouped, near the Borchards Quarry intersection with Robert Sobukwe Drive, issuing further orders.
“The people in front of me, you have five minutes to disperse because this gathering is illegal under the Unlawful Gatherings Act. The people on my left, please go into your houses as police action will follow which will include the use of force.”
Student representatives then stepped forward and asked the police to stand down. Referring to an order handed down following the use of force at Parliament on Wednesday, one student representative produced a court order: “We’ve got papers, and you are interdicted from shooting at us,” he told an officer who appeared to be in charge.
The officer remained adamant “that this gathering is illegal”, and before the leaders could fully consult the group on the field, police fired several rounds of rubber bullets and stun grenades into the crowd, and chased groups of fleeing students.
Despite the volatile situation, many residents opened their homes to protesters, offering them water and other refreshment.
The running battles through the streets of Bishop Lavis were preceded by a march of students from the University of the Western Cape and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, demanding that proposed university fee increases mooted for next year be scrapped and that the government properly align its resources and priorities to “make free tertiary education a reality”.
Earlier in the day the crowd had grown in numbers as students gathered at the UWC student centre.
There were tense moments as they awaited the arrival of UWC rector and vice-chancellor Tyronne Pretorius.
UWC #FeesMustFall student leader Msingathi Kula captured the mood among the chanting and singing crowd when he told them: “The rhetoric stops today, because you have a right to raise your demands because this is your time to speak out. We are demanding that exams be postponed because this university has been shut down since Tuesday.”
He and several other students demanded an official apology from the university for injuries sustained, which he said included broken bones and rubber bullet wounds, after police took action against students outside the campus on Thursday night.
At one point the large group of chanting students went directly to the rector’s office, demanding that he come out and address them.
Pretorius, protected by university security, did at one point come to the front of the building housing his offices, but it was decided that the venue was not an appropriate place to speak to the students.
A few minutes later he went to the student centre, where he listened to student grievances before addressing them.
Among their demands, the students called for the transformation of several decisionmaking structures to include proper input from students.
Pretorius eventually got on a table, telling the restless group that he had left a Pretoria meeting of senior tertiary institution leadership because he believe he needed to be there to speak to the students.
To roaring applause, he told them: “Education is of concern to us.”
He said that exams would be postponed by a week.
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