Obama: Inside, elation; outside, rubber bullets

2013-06-30 14:00

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If Barack Obama saw the irony in referring to student uprisings that set Soweto alight in 1976 just minutes after stun grenades had boomed outside the venue he was visiting, it didn’t show.

“The story of Soweto inspires me too. The uprising opened my eyes to the broader world. I’m honoured to return as president of USA,” Obama told guests at a venue styled as a town hall at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus.

He spoke of visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial, erected to honour the young protester who became the symbol of the 1976 uprising, when he was still a senator.

There, he said, he paid “tribute to an African boy who changed the world”.

While he was rapturously welcomed by the young audience, a group opposed to his administration and accusing the American president of war crimes

gathered outside to vocally protest his presence.

The police said 120 protesters had been given permission to assemble at the gates to the campus until 2pm, in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

Tweeting from an account called @NoYouCantObama, the protesters recorded their objections – and then all hell broke loose.

One protester, Tasneem Essop (@TazEssop14), tweeted: “2 Injured by rubber bullets, one pushed into a ditch by police, in hospital.”

Brigadier Sally de Beer, spokesperson for the police’s Joint Operations Centre, said the protesters “refused to disperse when asked to do so”.

De Beer said two rubber bullets and one stun grenade were fired, but nobody was arrested.

According to the @NoYouCantObama account, one “comrade” was arrested.

De Beer said there were “no injuries as a direct result of police action”, although there had been a report of somebody who fell and was injured while running away, possibly the person referred to in Essop’s tweet.

Initial reports suggested tear gas had been used, but the police denied this.

Essop said the group was given five minutes to move before the stun grenades and rubber bullets were fired.

“They then brought a police van and drove it into the crowd of protesters. Police fired two stun grendes into the crowd, at which point I started running away. I heard shots fired behind me.

“Police were telling protesters who were walking away from the scene to run instead of walk or they would shoot again.”

She said the protest was organised by the No You Can’t Coalition, which included members of Cosatu, the SACP, the Boycott Divest Sanctions Movement and others.

The clashes made world headlines and infuriated many opposed to Obama’s visit, who took to social networks to vent their fury about what they said were heavy-handed police tactics.

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