Paddy O'Halloran, Daily Maverick
On Monday 19 October 2015, Grahamstown police reinforced by officers and equipment from East London twice dispersed protesting students at Eastcape Midlands College (EMC). Students at the college were protesting corruption by their institution’s administration. They had been joined by students from Rhodes University, down the hill, who had shut down their institution early in the morning as part of the national protest against unaffordable tertiary education. The police threw stun grenades and, in the second dispersal, chased students with a water cannon using chemical water that caused severe itching. When the students retreated to the Rhodes University campus, the police gathered in force at the campus entrance until the vice-chancellor went to the police station to officially request that they stand down. Elsewhere in South Africa so far this week — in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Port Elizabeth — protesting students and academics have been met with arrest, tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. With the exception of Rhodes, the reaction by state and universities has been to break the protests using force.
In Grahamstown, police belligerence masks a dangerous lack of police action. As quick as the police were to send personnel, vehicles, and equipment to confront the students, they were far more nonchalant about serious community concerns.
Recently, a number of murders involving mutilations have spread fear among the residents of Grahamstown’s townships.
The Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) told police that the anxiety and rumours caused by the murders could lead to xenophobic attacks if they went unaddressed. On 12 October, they called a community meeting at which the police could respond. The police representatives did not appear until they were called, and arrived an hour-and-a-half late.
Said UPM organiser Ayanda Kota: “Subsequent to that we went to the same person [at] the police station and raised our concerns. Nothing was done.” The lack of action by the police has led to terrible consequences for Grahamstown.
Since the early afternoon of Wednesday, 21 October, Grahamstown has been the site of xenophobic attacks on shop owners and township residents from other countries and other parts of South Africa. While police monitored a peaceful and legal protest by Rhodes students and staff at the western end of the city, shops were attacked and looted across town. UPM members stood between flying bricks and the shopfronts, pleading with the attackers to stop or helping the people inside to escape.
Police responded to UPM’s call, but when people told the police officers they were going to the township to loot shops, they were allowed to proceed. No one was arrested on the spot in spite of the announcement of criminal intent.
Local newspaper Grocott’s Mail reports that 95 arrests have been made over the looting of 75 shops and that police increased their presence in Grahamstown overnight. This report fails to note that the police had at least a week to attend to the community’s call for help.
In spite of arresting almost 100 people, the police have failed the Grahamstown community. Alerted to legitimate fears, they did not respect the people the people of Grahamstown and UPM enough to engage with them about either the murders or the possibility of xenophobic attacks. Meanwhile, students have been injured while fleeing from police at EMC.
The police clearly do not serve the community. They have demonstrated that their only function is to control the community. Rather than listening to the people, working to hold the community together, and preventing the xenophobic attacks, the police responded as armed enforcers once violence had already broken out, shops had been ruined and robbed, and the community endangered. The urgency with which police hurried to corral the protesting student contrasts starkly with their initial response to violent looters – whom they let go to continue looting in the township.
Equipment such as the armoured water cannon signifies the intent and function of the police not as community members but as community controllers.
The last time the water cannon that was used against students on Monday came to Grahamstown from East London was in August, during a peaceful protest organised by UPM against corruption in the municipality. That day, armoured police vehicles were arrayed in force across High Street in front of City Hall, and police in riot gear formed a cordon blocking the building’s entrance. Ironically, the very people who had to march up to those armed police to protest against municipal crime had to protect local people in spite of the police when the attacks began on Wednesday. They were the same people who had had the community’s safety in mind for more than a week before the attacks while the police had been indifferent.
The spate of police violence against protesting students across the country, including in Grahamstown on Monday, does not demonstrate the extent to which police have failed their communities. Indeed, the repression of student protests conceals the greater failures while contributing to them. In Grahamstown, as police waste their time intimidating, chasing, and shooting at young black students protesting in a wealthy quarter of town, they ignore the legitimate fears of township residents and allow preventable violence to ruin people’s lives.