Wits protest: ‘There was no threat to shoot’

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate is examining police violence at a student protest in Braamfontein that led to the fatal shooting of Mthokozisi Ntumba.

The killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba by the South African Police Services (SAPS) marred the protest at the University of the Witwatersrand over financial exclusion. Ntumba, who wasn’t part of the march, was killed when police shot without warning in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. It is unclear at this point whether they used live rounds or rubber bullets.

Minutes before he was killed, Ntumba had seen his doctor, Tebogo Sedibe, at the Myclinic Jorissen Medical Centre in Braamfontein. Sedibe, who was seeing another patient, did not witness the shooting but heard gunshots. “My assistant came through to ask me to help outside because one of our patients got shot,” Sedibe said. 

He rushed to the scene, where he “performed CPR compression only. I found him gasping, and unfortunately, it was not successful. He had a hole in his shirt. It was quite a big injury on the chest/abdomen area.”

Undated: Police killed Mthokozisi Ntumba, 35, who was not part of the student protest. (Photograph supplied)

Sedibe said Ntumba also had gunshot wounds underneath his right arm and on his right eyebrow. The doctor did not turn him over to see if he had other injuries.

“When [Ntumba] stepped out, literally, a [SAPS] van came and they took out guns and started shooting,” said a staff member from the medical centre who wanted to remain anonymous. She added that the three police officers gave no warning before shooting and that “There was no threat that could have led to the cops to feel the need to shoot.”

At around 1pm, the forensic pathology service came to collect Ntumba’s body, which lay on the pavement a few steps away from the clinic. Students formed a guard of honour, lining the streets, singing and holding up their fists in defiance.

10 March 2021: Protesting students raise their fists in solidarity as they form an impromptu guard of honour for the forensic pathology service vehicle containing Mthokozisi Ntumba’s body. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

Ndileka Cola, national spokesperson of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), said they are investigating the matter. “It is alleged that the young man who is a civilian, who was not part of the protest, had just left the doctor’s rooms when he was allegedly shot by the police officers.”

After visiting Ntumba’s family in Kempton Park on the morning of 11 March, police minister Bheki Cele in reaction to the shooting said “somebody went crazy” and there is “no inch of defence” for the police’s conduct. Cele also said it is becoming hard to deny that police officers react more violently to Black protesters than they do to white protesters. 

This became clear during the #FeesMustFall protests when whites were put in front of Black protesters to act as body shields. The police did not shoot then. By the morning of 11 March, no police officer had been arrested for the killing of Ntumba. 

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union condemned the “use of brute force by the SAPS members against protesting students from the University of Witwatersrand”, saying it “supports the genuine and urgent needs of students including creating more access to higher education”.

10 March 2021: Members of the South African Police Service advance on students from the University of the Witwatersrand blocking the intersection of Empire and Yale roads. (Photograph by James Puttick)

Protesting financial exclusion

The student protest started on 5 March before the police actions on 10 March, which also injured several students. “According to the [Wits Coalition for Free Education], in the 2021 academic year, more than 8 000 students have been unable to register on account of historical debt amounting to more than R1 billion,” wrote Mark Heywood for Maverick Citizen.

Mandisa Nyilika, 21, Student Representative Council (SRC) deputy secretary general at the University of the Witwatersrand, popularly known as Wits, said the university is not ready for the 2021 academic year because some students are not yet registered. Wits’ vice chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi revealed that the university had registered 90% of the students. 

“We are protesting against students’ exclusion. Students have not received laptops, data. Other students were informed that only returning students will receive financial assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).”

Nyilika does not want the academic year at Wits to start until all students are registered. She said NSFAS has not responded to some students and, as a result, “students are not able to process their allowances. They are not able to get proof of funding to be able to get accommodation.”

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande said in a media statement on 8 March: “NSFAS is facing a shortfall on its funding for 2021, which means that it has been unable to confirm funding for new university students.”

In a press briefing on 11 March, Nzimande said, “Cabinet agreed that funding should be reprioritised from the budget of the Department of Higher Education and Training in order to ensure that all deserving NSFAS-qualifying students are able to receive funding support for the 2021 academic year. Following this decision, NSFAS will be able to release funding decisions, and the registration process at public universities can continue as planned.”

10 March 2021: A Wits student sits reading a textbook at the intersection of Empire and Yale roads, which had been blocked off by students protesting against financial exclusion. (Photograph by James Puttick)

Saneliso Msibi and Bongani Moroka, both 20, were among the students in the protest. Msibi, from eSwatini, is an economics honours student. “I came because I wanted to be in solidarity with other students,” he said.

Also showing his support is third-year NSFAS-funded student Moroka, who is in construction studies. He said it was crucial to show his support as it could have been he who was struggling to register. 

Even though he acknowledged his NSFAS funding had come through, Moroka said “there is always a hiccup with registration”. He wants NSFAS to stop giving students their living expenses stipend two or three months late.

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Nyilika said Wits management’s response to their concerns was to “deploy police to come and brutalise, assault and shoot us”. 

So far, the Wits senior executive team has only put out a general media statement concerning Ntumba’s death: “Wits University is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of a 35-year-old man in the Braamfontein CBD outside of the institution this morning.”

According to Nyilika, the university management is to blame for what happened because “students were not carrying any weapons. All we had was our student card and masks.”

10 March 2021: Police force Wits student Sihle Mahle into a vehicle after he was arrested during the protests. (Photograph by James Puttick)
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