Protest 'ringleader'nabbed

2016-10-21 11:13
One of the many petrol bombs that were extinguished before they could explode at UKZN Pietermaritzburg on Thursday.

One of the many petrol bombs that were extinguished before they could explode at UKZN Pietermaritzburg on Thursday. (Supplied)

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“Everything was quiet at the university until he arrived, then all hell broke loose”.

This was the sentiment of police officers and security officials commenting on the arrest of a University of Kwa­Zulu-Natal student, alleged to be a protest “ringleader” at the helm of violent attacks under the #FeesMustFall banner.

Police went to the extent of holding an intelligence-driven operation to track down the student, who sources said was operating “underground” — holding off-campus meetings with small, elite groups of student rally organisers at UKZN.

A warrant of arrest for the postgraduate student was granted at a Pietermaritzburg court earlier this week after police received information that he would be arriving in the city from Durban on Wednesday night.

The student, believed to be in his mid-20s and whose name is known to The Witness, was arrested by police and Mi7 officials on the N3 while returning to Durban during the early hours of Thursday morning.

He had allegedly come to Pietermaritzburg to head a student meeting at the Malherbe residence.

“He was in hiding so it was difficult to track him down. We believe he is the main leader of the #FeesMustFall movement at UKZN and is allegedly the orchestrator of most of the violent attacks on university property, police and security,” a source said.

A background check into the student’s history revealed that he was arrested last year when the #FeesMustFall movement first began.

The student was also a senior member of the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) and was further aligned to the South African Students Congress (Sasco).

He was arrested last year on charges of arson, public violence and malicious damage to property.

The student faces similar charges this year but it is believed intimidation, incitement to violence and failure to comply with the university’s court order may also be added.

“He is now one above Sasco and the SRC. It is hard to describe in the parameters of university protests, but it is almost like he has his own rebel student organisation,” another source said.

“Pietermaritzburg’s campus has been relatively quiet for about two weeks. But on the night he arrived, all hell broke loose.”

The source was referring to a violent battle that broke out between police and protesters just after 12 am on Thursday morning.

After the student meeting, a group of protesters burnt a sofa at the turnstiles of the Malherbe residence.

The protesters then re-emerged near the Student Union building, which they attempted to set alight with petrol bombs. Mi7 guards were quick to respond and dispersed the students.

Minutes later, students began hurling stones and petrol bombs directly at security and police.

“It was a war zone. The students were holding up doors as shields and throwing petrol bombs and huge crackers directly at us,” a security guard said.

The police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. “It felt like it was raining petrol bombs.”

A petrol bomb landed on the shoulder of a police officer and although his jacket caught alight, quick-thinking colleagues were able to extinguish the flames.

Deterred from attacking the police, the students then set fire to the Peter Booysen Board Room near the William O’Brien residence. The fire was quickly extinguished by the university’s Risk Management Services (RMS).

Speaking to The Witness on Thursday, a student activist, who asked to remain unnamed in fear of victimisation, described his arrested leader as a “fearless comrade who would let nothing stand in his way”.

“[He] was at the forefront but the police were after him but he continued the struggle. He is our leader and he will continue to fight,” the activist said.

The student leader is expected to appear in court soon.

UKZN spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said protesters also threw fire extinguishers at a student residence yesterday afternoon.

“There are no reports of protest action on any of the other campuses. The academic programme is continuing on all UKZN campuses,” Seshoka said, adding that authorities are on high alert.

Invitation for public dialogue

Before the violence erupted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus on Thursday, an open letter was issued to the university’s vice-chancellor, Albert van Jaarsveld.

The letter served as an invitation to a public dialogue hosted by the university’s SRC and members of the Profs for Protest group.

The various #FeesMustFall structures said they recognise that the university community and leadership have expressed a commitment to free, quality education as well as to decolonising the curriculum.

“While we welcome this broad commitment we believe that it is urgent that we set aside a time amid the prevailing crisis to discuss some of the more immediate matters that affect our campus in particular,” the letter read.

The group wished to discuss the release of detained students; the “desecuritisation and demilitarisation” of campus and the removal of the court interdict. Also up for debate is the integrity of the academic programme itself and the provision of spaces on campus for students to freely engage in dialogue with each other, staff, the rest of the university community, and the public.

The meeting is scheduled for next Monday at the Colin Webb Hall on the Pietermaritzburg campus at 11 am.

Read more on:    #feesmustfall  |  pietermaritzburg  |  ukzn protests

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