A heavy police contingent patrol the Wits University campus, sometimes firing rubber bullets and a water cannon at groups of protesters. Picture: THE TIMES
A heavy police contingent patrol the Wits University campus, sometimes firing rubber bullets and a water cannon at groups of protesters. Picture: THE TIMES

Perhaps everything that happens at a university teaches us something. Wits University is taking extraordinary measures that it says are necessary to stay open and to complete the academic year. The police have been given the power to prevent and regulate campus-based protest.

But how is this power being exercised? And what are we teaching the students who are subjected to it, and those who look on?

For many years, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA has been documenting police responses to community-based protest. Excessive force, arbitrary arrest and lengthy periods of detention, often without evidence linking detainees to any wrongdoing, are commonplace.

Police and prosecutors collude to arrest as many "ringleaders" as they can — whether or not there is a credible offence to be charged — and to detain them, without bail, for as long as the magistracy will permit.

Prosecutors will seek postponements of bail applications on the flimsiest of excuses, probably knowing that there is little chance of obtaining a conviction.

But a conviction is not their purpose. The objective is to keep protesters in pretrial custody as long as possible – to teach them a bit of a lesson before letting them go, often after charges have been abandoned, or the magistrate strikes the case from the roll because the police have not bothered to gather any evidence.

Public order policing policy and standing orders are replete with calls for restraint and the careful management of volatile situations. Force is absolutely the last thing the police must resort to, and then with the minimum of it necessary to achieve a defined objective. Yet the reality is often unprovoked acts of police violence followed by self-serving justifications. Marikana and the death of Andries Tatane at Ficksburg were the very nasty tip of an extensive iceberg of excessive force in crowd control.

We cannot say what Wits management expected when they called in the police, but the pattern of violence that emerged in the past two weeks is depressingly predictable.

Female students were shot at with plastic bullets in their residences, apparently because they had not observed the police-approved bedtime. A priest was shot in the face, for no discernible crowd-management purpose.

This is standard fare to those who monitor the manner in which the police interact with protesting communities.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA has been helping Wits students and others arrested to obtain bail. One of our clients, a 22-year-old student, was arrested while standing on the steps of the Wits Great Hall. He says he was approached by six police officers in riot gear and told to move on. He questioned the order, saying he was doing nothing wrong.

This is apparently a bone of contention between students and the police. The police call the Great Hall steps an "operational zone". The students call it a "protest zone". Management seems unsure which it is.

Our client says he was then punched in the face, pinned to the floor, handcuffed and driven to the Hillbrow police station. He arrived there with a bloody nose and welts across his body. He was charged with attempting to steal a firearm from the police officers who arrested him. He was detained on a Saturday, which meant that the first opportunity to appear before a magistrate was Monday — unless the police or the duty prosecutor was willing to give bail out of ordinary court hours.

When the institute sought bail for our client, we were told there was a standing instruction to refuse out-of-hours bail for Wits students. Such an instruction would be unlawful, but that sort of ad hoc policy is commonplace in protest hotspots.

When confronted with the unlawfulness of that policy, the prosecutors dealing with the matter suddenly stopped taking the institute’s calls.

One man was arrested when he went to the police station to report damage caused to his home

The student appeared in court on Tuesday and was granted bail of R500. The amount, and the fact that bail was granted at all, was remarkable, given the seriousness of the offence charged — perhaps tacit recognition of the improbability of the arresting officers’ story.

Five of the institute’s other clients were arrested in police operations on the night of the fire outside the Orbit Jazz Club. Three of our clients are musicians who had just finished playing a gig at a local nightclub, one is a trash-picker looking for rubbish to recycle, and another, an accountant walking back late from a friend’s flat. It seems that none of them had anything to do with student protest or with the damage done outside the Orbit. They were swept up in police operations in and around Braamfontein that evening. When he asked why he was being detained, the accountant was told that the police allowed no one out in the streets in Braamfontein so late at night.

Although not Wits students, the policy not to grant after-hours bail apparently applied to these five people, too. They spent between two and three nights in custody before being released on free bail. These individuals, and others, were able to obtain relatively prompt release from custody because they were represented by attorneys. Our experience is that unrepresented people who are swept up in police crowd-management operations are not so lucky.

Earlier this year, 28 residents of the Precast and Thembelihle informal settlements spent three weeks behind bars before the institute was called in to provide representation and to secure bail. Although they would have been within their rights to participate in demonstrations, the sad reality is that most of the informal settlements’ residents deny having been involved in any protest.

One man was arrested when he went to the police station to report damage caused to his home during the protest.

Police involvement at Wits has been justified by reference to the rhetoric of violence allegedly adopted by some in the student movement in response to the state’s announcement of a fee increase. Leaving aside some of the more bizarre reactions to this — one Wits professor compares the student movement to Boko Haram — it would be wrong to suggest that university management should not have been concerned about this rhetoric.

But the response of Wits has been to foreswear the approach it has taken in the past: identify those reasonably suspected of breaking the law and pursue them through the legal process. It has chosen instead to unleash the arbitrary reality of police control of public spaces.

It seems to us that the lesson being taught to an entire generation of students is that the merest hint of militant action will be met with arbitrary and overwhelming force; that it doesn’t matter if innocent people are beaten up and unlawfully detained in the process; and that the exercise of constitutional rights to demonstrate and protest are the first casualties of the impatience of power.

• Wilson is executive director and Zondo is director of litigation at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA.

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