Topless Wits students: This is why we took off our bras

By Gabisile Ngcobo
12 October 2016

The female students stripped off their tops, whipped off their bras, lifted their arms to the sky and marched towards the police, tears streaming down their cheeks.

Emotions were running high as a group of #FeesMustFall protesters charged towards police in the courtyard of Wits’ Great Hall. Cops had already fired stun grenade and teargas to disperse the students and, fearing for their fellow protesters’ safety, three female students did something they hoped would calm the situation: they stripped off their tops, whipped off their bras, lifted their arms to the sky and marched towards the police, tears streaming down their cheeks.

“Sikhathele (we’re tired)!” they shouted.

“Stop shooting us! We’re not armed,” they said.

“We’re also fighting for your kids,” they added.

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Before long footage of the scene had gone viral beyond the borders of South Africa. Some people praised them, others condemned them. And then there was stand-up comedian Skhumbuzo “Skhumba” Hlope, who caused outrage after commenting that the trio looked “like old women with sagging boobs”. “If you’re going to show us breasts, at least they must look like a tennis ball,” he joked. He has since apologised. So what went on in their minds? “There was no real time to think,” Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a member of the topless trio says. It was a heated situated that called for drastic action.

#FeesMustFall is an issue close to her heart, she adds, and she didn’t sleep the night before because of the “desperation of the situation”. She was on campus by 8 am the next day with a group of about 20 students.

It was a peaceful protest but when the group started singing police threw stun grenades. Students weren’t allowed to be in groups of more than two, the cops said. The students mobilised more students and, accompanied by Advocate Dali Mpofu, the EFF’s national chairperson, they headed to main campus.

The cops started firing teargas again and Hlengiwe, a PhD student, had to “run for my life” – she’s asthmatic and is badly affected by the gas.

“By now students were now agitated and throwing stones. Then the police threw a stun grenade. In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve seen enough violence. What do I do?’”

Hlengiwe received a call from her friend Sarah Mokwebo, a quantity surveyor honours student. “She said, ‘we need to do something – let’s stage a topless protest.’”

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It was a “spur of the moment thing – an immediate reaction to what was going on,” Hlengiwe says.

“I was desperate for any form of intervention so I didn’t even think twice. I just said, ‘you’re right. Let’s do it!’”

They tried to get other students involved and were joined by Lerato Motaung.

“It’s all a blur,” Sarah says. “I can’t remember what was going through my mind. Only one thing was clear – the brutality needed to come to an end.”

Hlengiwe had so much anger she didn’t see herself stripping as they charged towards the police. “There’s always an army of policemen on campus. I only saw two policewomen that day. I believe it’s a game of masculinity.”

Hlengiwe hasn’t been on social media since the video made headlines because she doesn’t want to hear people’s views about what she did, she says. “My aim was for a ceasefire and that’s all I cared about. And I’m pleased we managed that objective.”

Her parents have passed away but the rest of her family supported her actions, she says. Her older sister sent her an emotional message later. “The way you confronted the police… I’ve never seen you like that. You made me break down.”

Sarah doesn’t care what people have to say because she didn’t do it for public opinion. “I’m very comfortable with my body – stretchmarks, boobs, tummy and all. So I wasn’t bothered by people like Skhumba.”

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Hlengiwe believes there’s a narrative that women don’t have authority over their bodies and it needs to stop. “It was a moment of resistance. The very same body you think is powerless stopped the war that day. I used it and it worked.”

She’s passionate about #FeesMustFall because, even though she completed her matric with flying colours, she didn’t have money for university.

After school she worked as a cleaner in a textile factory for about five years and was later promoted to quality controller. “Being promoted caused serious tension between me and the employees,” she says. “Imagine telling someone who’s old enough to be your mom that something needs to be redone.”

She quit and then rented a chair in a hair salon, styling people’s hair. Hlengiwe finally managed to get funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and enrolled at Wits to do a BA.

But NSFAS is a flawed system, she says, and she “wouldn’t wish it on anyone”. She has been assisting township matrics to apply for university funding but very few are successful. “You get so far and then NSFAS closes the door.”

And that, she says, is why she’s fighting the system – in any way she can.

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