Anatomy of a violent incident: the UCT library clash
Fight between students and security guards has polarised opinion
Fees Must Fall protesters and Vetus Schola private security clashed in and around the University of Cape Town (UCT) library last Tuesday, 18 October. On social media, blame was assigned to the protesters, the security guards, or both.
GroundUp’s reporters were outside the library and could not see what happened inside.
We interviewed witnesses inside the library and searched for accounts and photos in the public domain (mainly social media) to try to reconstruct what happened. We managed to interview three witnesses, but none were prepared to allow us to use their names, two of them (Witness A and Witness B) because they were afraid, and the third (Witness C) for professional reasons.
On 18 October, protesters attempted to force their way into the UCT library to keep students from using the space to study, according to library staff who were present.
While private security guards were responding to protesters “violently banging” on the evacuation door of the library’s Knowledge Commons, another group of protesters succeeded in forcing their way into the library’s main entrance, said Witness A, a member of library management, who asked not to be named because of direct threats to staff from protesters.
A video taken by a GroundUp reporter the same day shows a group of protesters throwing dustbins at security guards outside Molly Blackburn Hall, the building adjacent to the library, which Witness A said happened just before that same group forced their way into the library.
Amid the chaos, there was a fight between guards and a protester named Anokhanyo Zimasa Delihlazo. Guards attempted to detain a male protester, and Delihlazo. Witness A said Delihlazo resisted. Later, when the fight was over, Delihlazo admitted to Witness A that she had hit the guard on the head with a guillotine.
The guard had an injury to his head which needed to be stitched. Another library employee, Witness B, said UCT medical students, who were present, attended to the injured security guard.
A photo published in the Cape Argus shows Delihlazo sitting on the floor as a guard holds her by her braids. Another photo shows her screaming as she sits next to one of her braids, which had been ripped from her head.
Witness C said the guard shown in the first photo held Delihlazo’s braids for no more than two seconds.
“They did try and pick her up with her legs and feet, and she kicked and screamed that she was being raped,” Witness A said.
Following that scuffle, Delihlazo was visibly distressed and crouched on the ground, both Witness A and B said. Witness C said she “had trouble breathing and did not look well.” At the same time, other protesters were throwing chairs at guards. The private security guards sprayed a canister of pepper spray to clear the area, Witness A said.
Guards then took Delihlazo to the lobby area of the library, where Witness A asked them to step away and give Delihlazo space to calm down.
“I said to the guys, ‘Can you just step away and let me just deal with her for a moment, bring her up to speed, let her recover for a while? I understand that you’re going to arrest her, but let’s make sure she’s cognisant before you do that’,” Witness A said.
“They did that willingly. Nobody made a fuss.”
While waiting for medics to arrive, Witness A and other employees brought bottles of milk (apparently to relieve the effects of pepper spray) to Delihlazo, while one employee bought her a Coke.
“I didn’t really care about the circumstances at that point. My point was, ‘Let’s make sure this person is okay, whether she’s feigning it or not,’” Witness A said. “Her pupils were dilated. She did have a low pulse. She definitely did have smoke inhalation.”
While trying to keep Delihlazo awake, since shock can lead to unconsciousness, Witness A asked her if there was anything she wanted to talk about, then unaware of the guillotine incident. Delihlazo, she said, admitted to attacking the guard.
“One of the things that she said was ‘I picked up this thing — this piece of equipment — and I threw it at the guy’s head.’ She told that to me directly,” Witness A said.
The next day, the guard who had been attacked by Delihlazo had a rock dropped on his head from the upper storey of the Steve Biko Students’ Union building.
Another guard who was involved in the library scuffle was beaten with a rod as well as his own baton in the Cissy Gool Plaza, as shown in a video published by Times Live.
“Those two were directly targeted because of this event,” Witness A said, adding that that is what witnesses believe to be true.
Witness A said the security guards themselves were disadvantaged in the system they work for. “They’re probably more disenfranchised than anybody else.”
One campus security officer who tried and failed to keep the protesting students from entering the library was “absolutely shaking,” Witness A said. “He was devastated because he couldn’t get the gate closed. He was absolutely traumatised”.
An opinion piece by Mohammed Jameel Abdulla on the Daily Vox three days after the incident argued that the assumption that students who commit acts of violence are “lacking intellect and only understanding destruction” invalidates these students’ experiences with structural racial violence like poverty, discrimination, and inequality.
“There’s no denying that student protests have been marked with violence – from all sides – but it’s very rarely irrational violence,” the article said. “A lot of the time it’s motivated by an internal sense of justice, or retribution, or emotionally backed, but that’s still reasonable. This is an important distinction to make.”
Criticising what he called the confirmation bias of “armchair analysts” Abdulla wrote that “a little bit of digging” would have shown why the security guard in the in the TimesLive video was attacked. He “was the same man who used excessive force on one of the students earlier that week.”
Social media shows a deep division in interpretations of the violence. A tweet from three days after the incident that shared three photos of the altercations between Delihlazo and the guards received more than 1,000 retweets. One photo was the top one used in the GroundUp article. The other two were the Argus ones described above.
“There is no justification for this. None,” said the tweet.
On Facebook, a user calling for Delihlazo’s release wrote: “These thugs pulling Anokhanyo Zimasa Delihlazo with hair, and then you blame the students for being angry. What must be known is that we are peaceful people, we are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.” The post has been liked 56 times and shared 48 times.
Another Facebook user wrote: “These past two days has been one of the worst days of this year … Without any trigger warning of any warning of some sort Anokhanyo Zimasa Delihlazo’s pictures and a video were all over the internet. My nights were long seeing that she was brutalized, victimized and arrested one of the charges being assault common. On the night she was arrested and held in the Rondebosch police station her sister was denied to see her, her lawyer was also denied to see her. After coming from the police station I saw a picture of her hair on the floor, a picture of a pvt security dragging her with her hair as if that was not enough yesterday she made front page of Cape Argus newspaper kneeling and crying. Then many other pictures which captured her brutality surfaced.”
Witness B said Tuesday’s incident fitted a trend of more violent behaviour on the part of some protesters at UCT. “[It’s an] attitude of violence that I’ve rarely seen so close up,” he said. “This is a gang of protesters … who feel justified viciously attacking someone.”
Witness A said students might argue their violence is provoked by the university’s use of armed security guards against them, and the anger of the protesting students in the library was clear. “They [the students] were incredibly violent, incredibly incendiary” and they made accusations that the library is “just a white space”, Witness A said.
But library staff work to keep the libraries open for students who come from backgrounds where they have no access to wifi, computers or a peaceful environment in which to study at home, Witness A said.
The library has made 24/7 study spaces available so students can study around the clock. “We can’t open those areas now because of the protests,” Witness A said.
Delihlazo and the Vetus Schola security company did not respond to requests for comment.
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