Graham Pugin, S.J., the Jesuit chaplain to the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in Johannesburg is back home and recovering today. He had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet on the afternoon of Oct. 10 by the South African Police. “I am very lucky to have only been shot in the mouth,” he said on Tuesday morning. “I could have lost an eye or been struck in the head and killed.”
He described what led up to his injury. In the chaos that followed a police and student confrontation at the university, many students fled to Holy Trinity church for refuge. The church is situated on one corner of the main campus. As a number of students gathered in the church yard, police riot vehicles drove past and fired rubber bullets at them.
“Since the protests begun, the church has been a neutral place, which is safe and sacred, where all the stakeholders have been able to meet and talk. We insisted that nobody was allowed to come onto the property with sticks or stones or any weapons,” Father Pugin said.
Father Pugin went out into the yard and stood at the gate. A riot police vehicle then tried to enter the church compound. They drove up to him, standing in the gateway, a number of times, but he refused them entry because, he says, “I insisted that the church would remain a place of sanctuary, a neutral zone.”
Eventually a riot vehicle drove up, slowed down and then shot him in the face with a rubber bullet. Father Pugin says, “I did not move, even when the police tried to intimidate me, because I believe in nonviolence; that is why I am priest and it is the basis of my Christian faith.
“During the apartheid days, I was pulled before a court because I refused to be conscripted into the apartheid government’s military machine. I was a conscientious objector. I will never condone violence.”
The police commander of the operation at the university visited the Jesuit residence on Tuesday morning. He apologized to Father Pugin and asked for forgiveness.
“I told them I forgive them, that’s my Christian faith. But I also made sure that they knew that the way their operations were conducted were unacceptable. There was no need to shoot traumatized students who were seeking a place of safety.” The police have promised that an investigation into the shooting will be conducted by an independent body.
“A delegation from the university’s management has asked to come and see me. I will make it quite clear that they need to take the lead in returning to the negotiating table,” he added.
Universities in South Africa have been in a state of crisis since the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, announced last month that fees would be increased in 2017. Although the fee increase was capped at 8 percent and the government said that it would subsidize poor students, the announcement was rejected by students. For the last year students have been requesting free quality higher education for all in the country. The ruling African National Congress (A.N.C.) made this promise in their 2014 election campaign.
There have been a number of protracted meetings to try and deal with the crisis over the last few nights, many of them ending in the early hours of the morning.
On the night of Oct. 10 there was a breakdown in the negotiation process. The university, against the protesting student’s wishes, decided to resume classes on Monday morning. Those students wanted the university to remain shut to pressure President Zuma’s administration to honor the promises it made in 2014.
Last week the university had polled students and staff to find out if they wanted to return to class. An overwhelming majority voted yes. Because of the shutdown WITS University risks having to cancel the rest of the academic year (which ends in November) because so much class time has been lost over the last few weeks. This would have a major knock on the country, certainly for students supposed to be graduating and entering the job market as well as those leaving high school and wanting to enter university. In effect, the university would lose an academic year.
Many students returned to class, but a number of students continued protesting on Oct. 10. Towards the middle of the day, protesting students wanted access to the university’s Great Hall. When they were stopped by private security, they threw stones at the security personnel. Some claim that the security guards threw tear gas canisters at them first, others say that the students threw stones first. Others disrupted classes and intimidated students and lecturers. Chaos ensued and the police moved in. Police opened fire with rubber bullets and used tear gas and stun grenades. The campus became like a war zone.
After his injury Father Pugin was taken to a local hospital and treated. Even after he was shot police vehicles drove around the area for a number of hours and shot at groups of people with rubber bullets. This was seen by three other Jesuits who arrived at the scene.
The violence spread off campus and into the surrounding area. A bus was torched and shops were looted. It is not clear if it was only students who were involved. The police claim that there were other criminal elements that took advantage of the situation.
The assistant priest, Matthew Charlesworth, S.J., who was only ordained in the church two weeks ago, spoke to about 300 students gathered in the church and appealed to them for calm after the shooting took place.
Father Pugin says that he believes in and is inspired by St. Ignatius Loyola’s perspective on education. “He was clear, I think. He believed in free quality education, so do I.”
Asked if he was going to press charges against the police, Father Pugin replied: “I will take advice—many people have offered to help me—but my main concern is that the violence ends and that everyone goes back to the table to talk. That’s the only way forward right now.”
The Society of Jesus in South Africa issued a statement on the shooting and the higher education crisis in the country. Regional Superior, Father David Rowan, said that Jesuits will continue to do what they can to facilitate dialogue and bring an end to the current crisis. “The Society of Jesus remains hopeful that a solution can be achieved,” he said.