It had been peaceful as thousands of students from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) marched down the streets of Johannesburg to shut down UJ. Peaceful, at least, until a rock smashed into someone’s face.
This was the eighth day of the nationwide campaign to scrap university fees. It was gathering pace, as students ran in the spring sunshine you could feel the simmering anger.
Upon their arrival, most of the Wits students retreated and headed to a larger gathering at the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters, Luthuli House, after being refused entrance to UJ. The rest made for the gate – undaunted.
About 20 gigantic security guards, with the bodies of bouncers, stood behind concrete fencing and chained gates.
First words flew; then rocks, then bricks. The students tried to break the chains on the gate. A rock smashed into the face of one of the guards drawing a torrent of blood. The battle raged for 20 minutes, until the chains broke.
The students moved in hesitantly with their hands in the air; the rattled guards, bloodied with bricks in hand, stood by. Their last hope of stopping the students: the small road, over the freeway, that leads to the university.
The guards dashed for the bridge. They blocked hundreds of charging students. Two students fainted in the stampede but the guards stood firm. There was no backing down. Not even pepper spray deterred the determined students.
“They’re throwing stones, they’re hitting us, they’re spraying things on our face. What must we do? Must we look at them and smile?” asks one of the students with tears running down her cheeks.
Eventually, university staff allowed students through; UJ was shut down.
A few kilometers away in downtown Johannesburg, students lay siege to Luthuli House, the offices of the ANC. The ruling party was prepared. It set up a stage and microphone for the protesters; not too surprising for a liberation movement born of protest. But the 103-year-old party, the oldest in Africa, wasn’t prepared for the young fury of 2015.
On this day, even one of the most powerful men in the land couldn’t hold sway. ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, and the President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Sidumo Dlamini, were told to come down from the stage and talk to the students on the streets. Students then told them to sit down on the road, they refused. Mantashe was also refused an opportunity to address the crowd.
“ANC must fall,” were the chants that met the sunset from the mouths of the children and grandchildren of the struggle that put the party in power.