Special report: Our 14 hours in the student protests

2015-10-26 12:00
#FeesMustFall (The Juice)

Johannesburg - As the student protests last week entered into day 9 of a campaign against the increase of fees at tertiary institutions, Channel24 along with The Juice SA made a decision to use our platforms to inform and distribute information about what was going on. "As the youth stand together and #FeesMustFall makes South African history it can't be business as usual. The voices of our generation can't be ignored," explained Channel24 Editor, Herman Eloff. 

As journalists, we made the decision to spend time on the ground with students, staff and parents on 23 October as they marched to the Union Buildings. The Juice SA Editor, Jessica Levitt, spent 14 hours with those taking part in the landmark march to Pretoria. This is her diary of what happened...

23 October 05:45

Light has only just broken as I park at the Origins centre at Wits university, with two lone students waiting at the bus point, holding pillows and leaning on each other. Students were told the night before at the newly renamed Solomon Mahlangu House that buses would be leaving strictly at 7am. The meeting with government is set to begin at 10am, giving everyone ample time to take part in the planned march to the Union Buildings. 


The bus point is slowly starting to fill-up. There's a very evident buzz of excitement as students hug each other and murmurs of 'this is our revolution' get echoed over and over.


I meet Yonela (19) and Sampa (20) They tell me about their battle to pay fees and the struggle their families have had to endure to ensure they get an education. "My mom is a single mother and has five children. She's had to give up so much for me. I wouldn't say we didn't have food on the table, but I know she's struggled," says Yonela. She looks away at the buses lining up, turns back to me and smiles. "That's why I'm here. We just accept everything. We bitch about it on Twitter and nothing comes of it. No. I'm saying no to that." Her friend Sampa says the only reason she's studying is because she's on a bursary program, but even that doesn't cover everything. They assume I'm a student too, and when I explain that I'm a journalist at Media24 they ask about internship programs, saying they want to have a platform to educate and inform people about issues of social injustice. (I told the girls that any editor at Media24 would welcome them and I stick by that)


The buses are lined-up and students are still slowly streaming in. The 7am deadline has clearly been discarded, as everyone gets onto a bus to cement their space. But it was to be a long wait as confusion over the delay reigned in. Student marshals has been assigned to each bus and we were told that busses had to leave all together. So, until everyone had a seat, we were stuck. Then we were informed that we had to be escorted on the highway by Metro Police and officials had not anticipated the amount of busses, so we had to wait for more escorts. Also, each bus had colour coded tags, to ensure that when coming back, no add-ons could simply hitch a ride home. They were trying to do everything by the book and as the hours went by, frustration on the part of those on the buses became clear.


While student leaders start distributing water and apples to each bus, a car loaded with EFF members drives in. It has hundreds of t-shirts and members start distributing them to anyone willing to accept it. I call one of the marshals and say the march has started in Pretoria, with other students already there and heading towards the Union Buildings precinct. "Wits started this thing. There's no way they'll start without us," I get told. It's exactly this kind of wet-behind-the-ears attitude that will later see Wits realise that not everything is in its control.


It's now four hours past the time that busses were supposed to leave and an hour after the scheduled meeting between students leaders and government was set to take place. Outgoing SRC president, Shaeera Kalla appears, holding a phone to her ear. "There are so many emotions this morning. This is a monumental moment," she says before running off.  She's wearing black pants and a black shirt with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's face on it. 


One more Metro car arrives and it's deemed safe for us to leave. There's a loud cheer and students start singing Solomon. It's an emotional moment and some students eyes bulge with tears, while others are hugging each other and laughing. They are ready for peaceful protests. What they didn't expect was for the violence and hijacking of their perfectly planned and by-the-book march. On the road, the bus drivers are put under pressure to beat each other to be the first to arrive. It's worth the race - we're there within 25 minutes.


As the busses near the CBD, hundreds of people fill the streets, chanting. Witsies are told to wait until the busses are parked and to stick together, again demonstrating their continued efforts to orchestrate a co-ordinated march. I jump off early to take footage of the buses streaming in when three men approach me, yelling. "Hey, journalist. Put away that camera. No cameras here today." I try to walk away, but one follows, grabbing my hand in an attempt to get my phone.

                                                                   "Hey, whitie. I said no cameras."

I lower my camera and walk to the opposite side of the road. In that moment I know that things will not go according to plan. That for all of Wits' efforts to control everything, there are elements here today that cannot be controlled. 

I find myself joining the TUT students who have just arrived. Some are wearing their student cards around their necks, while others are wearing shirts marked TUT and others wearing yellow SASCO shirts, with the TUT logo on the front. To be clear, there is no way to determine whether these are actually TUT students or not. They may be be wearing all the memorobelia and saying the right things, but besides phoning the university and checking to see whether they are registered students, you cannot know for sure. The group, carrying sticks and rocks suddenly start running, banging on cars, throwing rocks at windows and shouting at motorists.


The group, dressed in TUT outfits, form a snake around the field where other students are gathered. They storm into the crowd, creating a frenzy with many running away screaming. They immediately edge toward the very front of the gate, where a line of police wearing protective gear is standing. The group is shouting at the cops: "We are your children. Why are you protecting this man (Zuma) All we want is free education. Why are you doing this?" They start throwing rocks, banging on the gate that has been erected.

Soon, they gather a tire and a plastic lid and set a fire. They start dancing around the fire as other students watch on. Two girls dressed in TUT shirts whisper into my ear. "If I were you, I'd put away my camera. On the way here, our leaders told us to grab anyone with cameras because the press has portrayed us as hooligans in the past." I say thank you and they move away from me quickly as two men approach me. "No cameras. We've warned you..." said one of the men who had visibly dilated pupils. I say "okay," and attempt to walk away to where the other press are standing. They follow me, rocks in hand, but soon get distracted as parts of the group have now brought in two big porta-loo's to add to the fire.


On the other side of the field, stun grenades are being thrown into the crowd. Two loud bangs go off in quick succession, with students running away only to quickly come back and laugh at police. I'm less than a foot away as the constant 'bang bang' goes off. 


There's a scuffle between students who are now approaching some of the group wearing TUT outfits. They're begging for them to remain calm, pleading for peaceful protests. The group wearing TUT outfits push the students to the ground, saying this is their fight too and they'll 'burn Pretoria if we have to.' A similar occurrence happens when religious leaders crawl through the broken gate, entering the frenzy. They attempt to block the part of the gate that students have broken, saying that this was supposed to be peaceful. The group tells them to back off, this isn't their fight.

It's at this point that a large contingent of press crawl under the gate to the other side where police are and where the podium had been set up in anticipation of President Jacob Zuma (The presidency later said he was never going to address students, however, on the day, a spokesperson asked for calm saying the president was about to come through) As the press escape, leaving only a handful of photographers and journalists, it seems to spur on the crowd's anger, with a renewed effort to throw rocks at police and the media. 


Crowd's gather, locking arms and signing. They are on the floor and gain momentum, aiming for the gate.


Wits and UJ students are mobilising on the bottom end of the field. They don't want any part of this violence and are calling their students to join them in a separate march on the roads surrounding the Union Buildings. Meanwhile, police have retreated and the violent groups of people have entered through another exit, while also breaking down the gate. They are removing the barbed wire and are told that the meeting went well, but there is still no set resolution.


Wits and UJ students are urged to walk back to the Union Buildings, but most are waiting by the buses. They are too scared to face the aggressive elements in the crowd, and are buying iced guava treats from street vendors for R2 a pop.


Jacob Zuma announces that there will be a zero percent increase in fees and a committee has been set up to investigate other concerns by students. But most students don't even know that they have been victorious. I'm talking to Lelo, a second year students at Wits. "We won? This doesn't feel like a victory. This is shameful," she says, while sucking on her ice-lolly.


Students start filling the buses, but you have to enter according to the colour tag earlier allocated to you. Marshals are turning students wearing the wrong colour away, saying they must find the correct bus or students will be left behind. As we wait, singing and chanting can be heard. I walk out and see people dressed in TUT gear approaching the road. I tell the marshall this is not good and we should just fill up the bus and go. The marshall insists on following protocol - we have to wait for the bus to be filled up with red tagged people.


The group blocks off the road, burns item in the centre of the road and starts approaching the busses, saying students must get out.


A group enters our bus, threatening us. For the first time, I feel a prickle of fear...



Students are now arguing with the marshall, many crying and screaming. They're saying we need to go and keep asking where the SRC is.


The group starts shouting 'booze, booze.' I follow them and see that they've broken into a bottle store and Nando's in the CBD. They are running out with bottles of Savana, one fella even stopping to offer me one. 



A police nyala comes roaring through the street, pelting rubber bullets at the group. 


As the group gathers more goods from the sidewalk to burn, I overhear the man who had earlier threatened to burn the busses tell his group that he has diesel and they must burn the Wits buses. He is walking towards the fire, setting the stick alight, while carrying a container in his other hand - the stench of fuel hits my nostrils.

                                                            I run to the Wits buses to warn them

Students had gotten back in after marshals assured them the situation was under control. 'You guys need to get out of here. They're coming with petrol,' I say. The marshall is mum, not knowing what to do. I shout, 'Get out and fucking run. Run to the end of the street.' As they storm out, flame ridden items are being thrown at the bus. 


I run with students and an middle-aged lady is on the right hand side at and entrance of flats. She's letting students in, shouting for us to head to the back. I find an open door and ask the man if I can charge my phone. It's a one-bedroom flat, sparsely decorated with a hand-drawn piece of paper sticking to the wall written, 'Pantsula.' Other students come knocking, asking to use the bathroom and are told, 'It does't flush. You guys will just have to go over each other.' The girls are all talking about what happened. They're debating how today went wrong. They are already thinking of solutions to make it right and how they will fix their mistakes. It's heart-warming. 


We're told that the busses are moving. We run out, getting onto the nearest bus. Behind us, we see groups following us with sticks and stones. We tell the bus driver to move, but our bus isn't full and we can't leave anyone behind. Eventually we get going. We're safe. We made it.


The bus driver, bless his soul, took a wrong turn and we're in Irene, Pretoria. As I close my eyes and lean back, I hear bits of conversation floating around. To my left, one group is discussing The Cassper Nyovest Fill Up The Dome concert, excited about the hip-hop star making history. To my right, a girl is speaking in hushed tones to her dad. "I'm okay. I wouldn't do anything that made me unsafe. You have to stop worrying. We are fighting for you too, daddy." Behind me, another group is talking about the celebs who have voiced their support to what happened, with Zuraida Jardine's name coming up. "Did you see how she mocked us on SnapChat, saying she hoped the protest was about healthier foods?" Her friend replies. "Nxa. Why do you care. Focus on the problem here, not her. She's nothing in this fight."

And in front of me, the bus driver is smiling. He turns around to a group of boys sitting on the packed bus and says:

                                                                          "I'm proud of you."

Read more on: #feesmustfall