President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday condemned the killing of an unarmed passerby by South African police during a university student protest for free education, describing it as deeply disturbing.
A 35-year-old government worker was caught in crossfire on Wednesday while walking out of a doctor’s office and shot dead on a Johannesburg street where university students were protesting to demand the scrapping of fees debt.
“This is most unfortunate and it disturbed me quite deeply because it demonstrated that whilst our people were protesting rather peacefully, there was overreach, it seem like, that by the police,” Ramaphosa said.
The victim was “an innocent bystander and indeed even the students much as they were protesting… did not warrant the type of resistance and push from our police,” he told traditional leaders.
He has demanded a thorough investigation into the killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba.
The incident sparked fresh anger and concern over police brutality, igniting further protests.
Around 300 people, including students, ruling and opposition party activists, as well labour union members marched to a Johannesburg police office where nearly two dozen armed officers guarded the main entrance.
“We are here to condemn them in the strongest force possible,” said Aubrey Moloto, 37, who was marching in solidarity with the students. “Enough is enough”.
From the police station, the procession marched to the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), where they were addressed by the party’s secretary general Ace Magashule.
Earlier, Police Minister Bheki Cele expressed his condolences to the family of the dead man and said the killing was indefensible.
“I can’t explain it. Somebody… just went crazy,” said the police minister about the shooting.
It is not clear yet whether police used live ammunition during Wednesday’s protests, but a police watchdog has launched a probe into the killing.
– Disrupted traffic –
Police fired rubber bullets to disperse students who were protesting outside University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), one of the country’s top-tier institutions.
The students had blocked roads with rubble and burning plastic trash bins, disrupting traffic, a street away from campus.
The students demanded that the university allow those in arrears on their fees — some by up to $9,800 — be allowed to register for the 2021 academic year.
Wits vice-chancellor, Zeblon Vilakazi told reporters earlier that the protests “could have been resolved better”.
A parliament committee on policing matters, condemned the “unwarranted excessive violence by the police”.
“From here, we are going back to our campuses to shut them down,” Athenkosi Mabona, coordinator of the South African Students Congress (SACSO), a students umbrella grouping, told AFP.
“The killing of yesterday is a vindication of our long-held view that the police of South Africa is an enemy of the black skin,” he said.
Memories of university unrest have stalked South Africa since 2015 when students staged nationwide FeesMustFall protests against high education costs on the backdrop of the country’s widening inequality.
In 2017, and two months before he was forced to resign, ex-president Jacob Zuma announced free higher education for poor and working-class South African undergraduate students.
A student financial aid scheme which subsidises disadvantaged students has been facing funding shortfalls.
In what the opposition called a “knee-jerk reaction” to the protests, Education Minister Blade Nzimande earlier on Thursday said government would give priority to funds to ensure that qualifying students would be sponsored for the 2021 academic year.
“These are not long-term solutions, but a temporary band-aid to buy time and cover up the fact that the ANC has fumbled its own ‘free-education’ policy,” said the largest opposition Democratic Alliance.