By Tshiamo Malatji & Keamogetswe Mosepele
A night vigil was organised by students of the University of the Free State (UFS) on the evening of 5 September 2019 following heightened national attention to violence against women. Chaos erupted at approximately 19:50 when students began running in multiple directions, causing a stampede and injuring some students.
Before this, a former UFS student, identified as Siyabulela Lufele, allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted a woman student. Two students who witnessed the incident explained that Lufele, along with Zenzele Khanya, had consistently caused disruptions during the night vigil by deliberately singing against the crowd, making remarks to patronise advocacy slogans such as “Men Are Trash” and asking multiple women students for their cellphone numbers.
“They were just mocking the whole thing. They weren’t taking it seriously. They kept asking different girls for numbers. They kept saying things like I am leaving with you tonight. Stuff like that. Like it’s just a joke to them. It was really triggering,”said one eyewitness student.
“Then every time the ladies at the podium tried to come up with a song, they would come up with a different song to oppose.”
“[Lufele] had been with girls throughout asking for their numbers since the beginning of the vigil,”another nearby student corroborated.
The two students then observed Lufele physically assault a woman student. “The lady kept saying don’t touch me [like] when you’re trying to shove somebody off. But Siya got angry and started pushing her so that’s when people started screaming and then chaos,” said the second witness.
The two students corroborated each other’s stories, claiming that Lufele had been at the vigil to disrupt and was harassing multiple students. “We could see he had intentions on disrupting this whole thing,” said the second witness.
Following the stampede, the first witness reported the incident to the Deputy President of the Student Representative Council, Agobakwe Mboweni. “He said that there’s so many contradicting stories circulating. Someone told him that Siya inappropriately touched that girl’s behind. So he just seemed confused,” said the first witness.
“[The first witness] was narrating it to the Deputy President. They were telling him what actually happened, but he was like what should he believe because there are so many stories now.”
In a statement released in the early morning of 6 September 2019, the Secretary of the South African Student Congress (SASCO) UFS Branch, Senzelemusa Sithole, acknowledged that Lufele was a member of their organisation. The statement also claimed that members of the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFF SC) UFS branch “barged into the SRC offices demanding [Lufele] comes out” and upon not finding Lufele, Mboweni along with the SASCO Deputy Chairperson were physically assaulted.
The Deputy Chairperson “was quickly rushed to Main Building where she received medical attention,”Sithole says.
Many stories were shared widely on social media, speculating on what had occurred at the night vigil. The University of the Free State is yet to release a statement on the incident. The Branch Secretary of the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFF SC) declined to comment and the Branch President was unavailable for comment.