Fear dominates life in post-apartheid South Africa. This is clear if you walk down any urban or suburban street. Houses and businesses are surrounded by tall fences, guarded by private security, or protected by alarm systems. People are afraid of thieves and murderers. More accurately, they are afraid of Black thieves and murderers.
Fear has also come to dominate life on university campuses. In the context of renewed student protests about ever-increasing fees, this fear is no longer a fear of failure. Instead, student activists are afraid of being arrested by the security forces brought in to deal with them and try to ensure that universities remain open, and they are afraid of what might happen to them while they are detained.
This fear is not misplaced. As reported on social media, Arthur Muhamelwa, a student leader at Johannesburg’s University of the Witswatersrand, was “abducted” by police. His colleagues searched for him in local police stations with no luck.
Muhamelwa reappeared a day after his arrest. Police had allegedly driven him from Johannesburg, in Gauteng, across the provincial border into Limpopo and abandoned him in the bush.
Like the majority of student protestors, Muhamelwa is Black. As much as the #FeesMustFall protests are about access to education for all South Africans, the truth of post-1994 South Africa is that it is largely the Black majority, and not the white minority, who cannot afford university fees.
Yet just as there is a racial element to the protests, so too is there a racial element to police and private security’s reaction to the protestors. Were Muhamelwa white, his experience, and his fears, would have been quite different.
Responses to student protests at the formerly whites-only University of the Free State in Bloemfontein illustrate the racialized aspect of policing. They also are clear evidence of how race and fear have been tangled.
Peaceful protests turned violent on Oct. 10 as the university reopened after a two-week suspension of academic activities (one of which was a planned break). Over a dozen students were arrested that morning for violating the court interdict against disrupting academic and non-academic activities on campus. The interdict had been issued in January 2016 in response to #FeesMustFall protests in the last months of 2015.
The university administration insisted on keeping the school open and classes running despite the sporadic clashes and near confrontations that took place between protestors and security forces throughout the day. Some classes and scheduled exams took place in classrooms and exam halls guarded by men in riot gear and armed with rubber bullets.
While some professors stayed in their offices out of fear for what (Black) student activists might do, others tried to teach as they had been instructed to do. A highly militarized environment, however, is not conducive to such efforts.
A final confrontation between police and students took place as the day ended. As students threw stones and bricks, as they had done during the day, security forces set off stun grenades, fired rubber bullets at protestors, and arrested those they could get their hands on.
At the end of the day, approximately 50 students had been detained.
All of them were Black. Though some likely had been involved in entering classrooms and tearing up exam papers or had thrown stones at security forces, many others were detained simply because they, like the protestors, were Black.
Black students commented that even if they had not done anything wrong and had not been involved in the protests in any way, if they ran, they would be chased and arrested. The key then was to walk away from the grenades and bullets as calmly as possible. Yet even then, they might be detained. And students were seen walking away from confrontations, walking as calmly as possible but with deep fear on their faces, a not inappropriate fear of being shot at or arrested simply for being Black.
White students are also afraid. Like Black students who know they will be detained simply for trying not to get shot, white students also know something. They know they will not be detained by security forces. They know their white privilege protects them from arrest, as it protects them from so many other things. They know they can safely go for their afternoon run and not be arrested for running, for they are not running (or walking or standing or being a photojournalist or sitting or breathing) while Black. They are running, safely and securely, while white, and they do so without a care in the world.
But white privilege does not protect them, or their cars, against “angry” Black men hurling stones. And so this is what they fear.
Trained as a historian at the University of Saskatchewan, Rachel Hatcher left Saskatoon to go to what turned out to be the South African version of Saskatoon — Bloemfontein, in the Free State. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State. Her current research examines how reconciliation is imagined in the South African, Kenyan, Honduran, and Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. She has also been writing a regular series on how South African history is portrayed in public places for ActiveHistory.ca.