Three young women removed their tops to underline the students' vulnerability against the police's use of force. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Many dismiss the women’s naked protest, but women’s breasts are a powerful semiotic of resistance, writes Gillian Schutte.

Johannesburg - On Tuesday, the nation witnessed what can only be described as institutional mayhem at Wits University when on live television, the SAPS opened fire on #FeesMustFall protesters and civic society leaders who marched peacefully from the west campus to Solomon Mahlangu House on the main (east) campus.

Students marched in protest over vice-chancellor Adam Habib’s decision to reopen the university before any of their demands were met.

Stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets rained on protesters in two separate attacks before they reached Solomon Mahlangu House.

The force used by the SAPS was excessive for the circumstances. There was no threat from the protesters who are walking slowly and orderly, singing slow Struggle songs. But when the missiles came, the response was one of anger. Stones were picked up and a police car vandalised.

When the growing throng of protesters reached Solomon Mahlangu House and congregated at the stairs, they were quickly met with yet another arsenal of rubber bullets and stun grenades. Journalists who filmed from the sidelines ducked for cover and students hastily retreated.

Their patience was tested to the maximum. This was the third attack in a few hours although their protest was non-violent.

It was clear from the sheer volume of arsenal used against them that the VC saw this as a D-Day - the day that the campaign would become so injured and violated that it would admit defeat.

But each assault only provoked the students and strengthened their resolve.

Advocate Dali Mpofu, who was present as a concerned citizen and not wearing his political hat, negotiated with the police. An agreement was reached that the police would cease fire if the students stopped throwing stones or water bottles at them. So far we had only witnessed students throwing stones when provoked by full-frontal attacks.

Student leader Mcebo Dlamini stepped forward to address the police. An officer who was nodding his head in agreement and shaking hands with Mpofu moments before suddenly lunged at Dlamini and tried to grab him. A violent scuffle ensued.

Moments later four officers kept Dlamini pinned to the ground.

The other officers who were lined up facing the students started shooting indiscriminately at the fleeing bodies. Chaos ensued. Students ran for cover while police encroached on their side firing.

Stun grenades were thrown and stones flew overhead in the direction of the police. A small group helped Dlamini escape the clutches of the police. He was now with the throngs of protesters who congregated away from the police.

Mpofu calmed the crowd with some sage words but Dlamini was shaking with fury.

He called on the students to defend themselves at all costs.

They made their way back to Solomon Mahlangu House slowly and carefully. Dlamini addressed the crowd congregated on the stairs and in the courtyard. Suddenly there were expostulations.

Some students made their way through the gardens and a stone was flung at the police.

Chaos erupted again and students scattered. Rubber bullets were fired and tear gas saturated the air. In the chaos, three female students - Sarah Mokwebo, Hleng-iwe Patricia Ndlovu and Legato Motaung - moved towards the row of cops with their bare breasts exposed.

They called out “Cease fire, cease fire!”, their hands above their heads. The police stopped shooting.

They looked confused or bemused. The women were close up, their breasts in front of the cops’ faces. The officers had no idea where to look. They took a few steps backwards.

The women called out to them “Why are you shooting us? We are your children. We are the most vulnerable people in society. Look at my black woman’s body. We are the vulnerable ones. Why are you shooting us?”

They asked the police officers why they beat them up when all they were asking for was free education. They challenged the police at close quarters, reminding them that they were fathers and asked why they shoot the black child, the black girl, when they themselves cannot afford to send their own children to university.

One or two of the men’s faces flinched. Some were impervious. But the women continued: “Please, we have had enough. Don’t shoot. Stop shooting us. All we are asking for is free education.”

They looked brave and vulnerable. Their naked stomachs and breasts juxtaposed with police in riot gear armed with guns had a profound affect on all. The stark contrast was shocking and rendered the violence of men with guns and riot gear hyper-visible.

Naked flesh exposed on the site of violence makes a visceral anti-war statement and this was war. It was a war declared by state and institution against the black child who dared to rise for their rights.

Many dismiss the women’s naked protest. They bemoaned the fact that yet again black women were forced to lose their dignity by stripping naked. But nakedness is not a loss of dignity when voluntarily used in protest. It is resistance against those who would strip them of their dignity.

Women’s breasts are a powerful semiotic of resistance. Breasts are the most vulnerable part of their bodies. They are also a source of nurturing. Even men with guns have been nourished on their mother’s breasts. Breasts are both robust and vulnerable.

These three half-naked women disarmed the police with their naked cries. The police did not fire their guns again.

Habib had given the order to overpower this protest and uses words such as “take back the campus” as his arsenal. But this collective of young black bodies was saying no - at least not until their demands were met. They put themselves in the front line despite the dangers this posed to their bodies.

Others say that the students were masters of artifice, playing up to the cameras. But all of these arguments were simply attempts to render invisible the reality of black pain, pain both individually and collectively felt and expressed.

The cry of black pain has been heard audibly throughout the two years that these students have maintained this struggle. It is real. It is whispered, it is spoken, it is screamed and yet so many simply choose to ignore it or write it off as an unnecessary pathology.

But for the revolutionary youth the violence against the black body through historical institutional racism has truly run its course. This generation of so-called born-frees are no longer accepting the crumbs the white monopoly capital and a black elite.

They are saying no more to usurpation, using this pain as the very thing to fuel their resolve to break free from this discourse. Their movement is smart, intellectual and executed with what Wits academic Fiona Horne has described as a “terrible beauty”, to quote Yeats when he wrote of the 1916 uprising in Ireland.

This is a struggle that is meticulously maintained through frequent caucusing, organisation, rigorous intellectual discussion, theory that births a hybrid of the old and the new, collective bargaining and collective body in undeniable performative revolutionary practice.

The #FeesMustFall campaign is an unstoppable escalation of a collective black uprising against the control, power, violence and abuse of bodies, minds and souls. It is civil disobedience. It is revolution. It is Fallism.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent