“Spectators started beating up the protesters on the pitch,” remarks the People, Not Stones report about the assault of black students and workers on the 22nd of February 2016 at the University of the Free State’s rugby field, Shimla Park. A new documentary, Shimla Park: A Campus Race Struggle, depicts the struggle of black students during a week in 2016 as they attempt to pressure the university’s management to address racial discrimination and the remnants of apartheid and colonialism still present at the institution.
We are not here to fight.Lindokuhle Ntuli
Background of White Violence
The documentary opens, briefly noting the history of the institution. Professor Jonathan Jansen had since become the first Rector & Vice-Chancellor of colour. Despite promising racial transformation, tensions between white students and students of colour remained stringent. The university was once only for white students. Attempts to racially integrate were met with backlash from a white populace accustomed to the privileges of racial segregation.
In fact, in 2008, a video emerged of white students humiliating black staff at the University of the Free State in mockery of proposed racial integration. That incident, where white students made black workers drink their urine, compete in typical residence activities and embarrass themselves on camera, signified the violence on black bodies at the hands of white students, who abhorred the idea of black people entering the space.
This violence is repeated in 2016, where the documentary takes place. White spectators descend from the stands at Shimla Park and assault black workers and students, who do not fight back. In fact, they try to flee, but the spectators block their path, throw them to the ground, punch and kick them, and drag them across the field.
New black leaders
Lindokuhle Ntuli and Mpho Khati were the President and Vice-President of the university’s Student Representative Council between August 2015 and August 2016. The documentary shows Ntuli explain the events preceding the assault. At the onset of their term, South African student politics had shifted to a movement of decolonisation and labour rights. In March 2015, the University of Cape Town initiated a national conversation on colonial statues in university spaces. This escalated to a national protest on the cost of higher education and the coloniality of its curriculum, academic staff and customs.
Ntuli was a law student and had risen to popularity for creating a student law association. At first, he was not even considering running for president, but when there was only one presidential candidate, a white man, he resolved to contest. This was a big decision at the time, because UFS has mostly been run by white-dominated SRCs. Prominent, but disrespected, was the Vice-President of the SRC, Mpho Khati. Protest culture in South Africa had also developed a patriarchal aggression, which undermined women leaders. Throughout the week, Khati and fellow women leaders maintained a strong presence at the fore of the protest, also combating internal sexism.
First, it was a labour protest
The Worker Student Forum (WSF), led by Trevor Shaku, initiated a protest in 2015 to insource workers at the institution. Universities in South Africa exercised the practice of outsourcing their lower-earning workers to external companies, which did not provide fair wages or the same worker benefits received by workers directly employed by the institution. Exploitation of outsourced workers is common and labour rights not easily guaranteed. Protest action in 2015 ended because the university encouraged the WSF to negotiate.
Negotiations did not result in the insourcing of workers so the WSF resolved to continue protest action in 2016. Ntuli, Khati and the rest of the SRC supported these protests, galvanising students to the cause of the workers. However, the university responded to the these protests by issuing a court interdict against protest activity, banishing Trevor Shaku and protesting workers from entering campus and avoiding negotiations with student leaders.
The Rector chose rugby
On the 22nd of February 2016, workers and students attempted to continue negotiations with Professor Jansen. He explained that he would be unable to schedule time on that day. At the same time, the university’s rugby team, the Shimlas, were to play a game against Nelson Mandela University’s rugby team at the Shimla Park stadium, located on the university grounds. Rugby functioned as an integral component of both the university’s and white Afrikaner culture. Upon hearing that the Rector would be attending the rugby game, the protesters resolved to disrupt the game to attract the Rector’s attention and continue negotiations.
The very fact that the Rector chose to attend the rugby game, while claiming no time to negotiate was viewed as the Rector choosing rugby over workers and white culture over black struggle. This angered within the camp of protesters. However, Ntuli and Khati, who had taken charge, were against the idea of using violence. They constantly warned protesters against aggravating onlookers, damaging or vandalising property or committing any illegal activity.
Even upon entering the field, the protesters held hands. They sang in the middle of the pitch. Most of them avoided white spectators who had come onto the field. Protest leaders pulled away any protesters that did engage with spectators, claiming that they were not at the field to fight.
The situation escalates
Following the assault, protesting students went to the Abraham Fischer residence. This was a private residence, which was mostly white and accepted the most talented rugby players. The space was unregulated by the institution. Its customs were racially discriminatory. So, protesters entered the residence, broke windows, looted cupboards and damaged furniture. This was the first major act of violence from the black protesters, in retaliation to the assault at Shimla Park.
The following day, they removed the statues of Charles Robbert Swart, a former apartheid-era president. This statue sat in front of the university’s law faculty which was named the CR Swart building. Students spray-painted a new name for the law building and continued to do this for more Afrikaans-named buildings and residences. The protest was no longer under the control of the SRC or the WSF. Black students, radicalised by the nonchalance of the Rector and the assault by white spectators weren’t waiting for negotiations anymore. They wanted to reclaim the space.
Management calls the police
Students still sent in a series of demands to the institution, including an array of issues. Worker insourcing, the resignation of Professor Jansen and a request to bring charges against white students were highlighted. But the demands included renaming buildings, allowing more students to sit in positions of management, creating gender-inclusive policies and racially integrating residences. The university, represented by its Vice-Rector, Dr. Choice Makheta, gave an unsatisfactory response.
Seeing that the institution disregarded their demands, students opted to transform the space themselves. Following the successful removal of the CR Swart statue, they targeted the much larger MT Steyn statue, in front of the university’s Main Building. This is thwarted by the police and private security, who then violently raid a black university residence. They search for “suspicious-looking” black students and arrest them, even if they weren’t part of the protest. 21 students are arrested, many of whom had not protested at all. Many more black students are physically assaulted by police, teargassed and harassed.
Protest activity ends after this event. The documentary closes, explaining that six white students received six month suspensions. Two black students received R5 000 fines and a six & nine month suspension. Professor Jansen eventually resigns and the university initiates a transformation process. A report on the Shimla Park assault and related events was released.
One worker died in hospital soon after the Shimla Park assault and another suffered a miscarriage. Philela Gilwa, one of the suspended black students, was killed in Cape Town while serving his suspension. The closing title of the documentary states, “Black students still call for wider decolonisation.”