In South Africa a Jesuit church will remain a sanctuary, but not a meeting place for ending fees conflict

Students from the University of the Witwatersrand march Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, through downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. Protests calling for free education have sometimes turned violent and have roiled many South African universities since last month. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Since tuition-hike protests broke out at South African universities, Holy Trinity Church has been a place of sanctuary for students fleeing violent protesters and police. It has also been a place where meetings have been held by groups from all sides of the conflict. Graham Pugin, S.J., has repeatedly said that Trinity is a sanctuary and a neutral space for dialogue. All that came to an end this weekend.

The church became internationally known a little less than two weeks ago after Father Pugin, the Jesuit chaplain to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, was shot in the face with a rubber bullet fired by police. He was trying to stop heavily armed police in a riot control vehicle from entering the church’s property. Behind him, in the car park, many students had sought refuge. The violence that had broken out made the area around the church look like a war zone.


Last Sunday evening, Oct. 16, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, Duncan Tsoke, presided and preached at the weekly student mass. The bishop appealed for an end to violence and said that the only way that the crisis would be resolved is through dialogue. He told the students that violence is never a solution, that talking is the only way forward. He said that he, and the other bishops of the local conference, were deeply concerned about them and their futures.

Earlier that day Father Pugin had been asked by the Academic Staff Association of Witwatersrand University (A.S.A.W.U.) if Holy Trinity could host a meeting in which a #WitsPeaceAccord effort would be launched. He was told that the former Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, and former minister in the Mandela government, Jay Naidoo, would be speakers. He was also asked to address the gathering. He was assured by email that security would be taken care of and that this was an opportunity to “win peace.”

On Wednesday about 500 people filled the church. A large crowd of about 1,000 gathered outside. The proceedings began. Then things got nasty. The vice chancellor of the University, Adam Habib, arrived at the meeting. One of the student leaders, Vuyani Pambo, got up and furiously shouted, “Why must we sit in a meeting with Adam Habib? We will never forgive you. I don't know how you pray here. You are a very cruel man. I hate you!

“Habid is sitting here while Mcebo is on his way to Sun City [the name given to a prison outside of Johannesburg],” he said. Mr. Pambo referred to a student leader from Wits, Mcebo Dlamini, who over the weekend had been arrested by police and charged with public violence, theft, malicious damage to property and assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm. The day before the meeting he had been denied bail by a Johannesburg court and detained.

Some people sitting around Mr. Habib reached out toward him in a threatening manner. Sitting next to Mr. Habib was Anthony Egan, S.J., who had to stretch out his arms to shield the vice chancellor. Students got more rowdy. A few attempts to calm things down were unsuccessful. Some stood on the benches shouting inflammatory things at Mr. Habib. Mr. Pambo said that if Mr. Habib did not leave, he would tell the students to leave. The vice chancellor had to be escorted out of the church, over the sanctuary and through the back entrance, protected by clergy, peace monitors and organizers of the meeting.

Another student leader (who was shot in the back more than 10 times with rubber bullets by the South African police the day after this happened) managed to get the crowd to agree to move to another venue on the campus where more people could be accommodated. As this played out Father Pugin said to the gathering, “I'm sorry that the sacredness of this space has been violated today. May God be with each one of you.”

That was a turning point for the parish. On Thursday the superior of the Jesuits in South Africa, David Rowan, S.J., issued a statement saying that Holy Trinity could no longer be used for meetings because it had been violated and was no longer a safe, neutral and sacred space.

Some Catholics have criticized the parish and the Jesuits for providing a space for meetings of the #FeesMustFall movement and other groups engaged in the current crisis in the university in the first place. Students, mediators and university management have all used this space to meet in the past few weeks as the crisis at the university got darker and deeper.

Two words sum up why Holy Trinity and its staff decided to do what they did: sanctuary and dialogue.

During the Middle Ages many churches extended the tradition of monastic hospitality as laid out in the Rule of St. Benedict, the “constitution” of Western monasticism, to persons fleeing violence, persecution or conflict. The Rule includes in its tenets hospitality—welcoming guests coming to the community for prayer or rest.

This principle was extended to include refuge or sanctuary. Anyone fleeing from conflict could claim this sanctuary and many did. Because it was church land, the monastery or church was sacred ground. Violence on it was prohibited. No person seeking sanctuary was allowed to bear arms within this space. Monks often mediated between pursuers and pursued.

Similarly these holy grounds became places where warring factions often met—under the same conditions, that is, unarmed—to resolve disputes, to negotiate peace. This was further facilitated by the fact that from around the ninth century onwards unarmed clergy were regarded as non-combatants in wars.

To this day in many places the church has acted as a mediator in conflicts. Some sections of the church have even specialized in such work. Recently, the end of the civil war following the 1975 end of Portuguese rule in Mozambique was brokered by one such group, the Catholic Community of San E’gidio.

Here in South Africa the most prominent example in recent history was the role of Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. It provided sanctuary from the apartheid police and became an iconic symbol in the fight for justice.

When conflict erupted at Wits University, Holy Trinity made the decision to make a “safe and holy” space available for medics tending to the injured and for students fleeing violent protests and police on campus. The parish insisted that all present within its grounds be unarmed and not engaged in planning any actions entailing violence and damage to property. It also allowed itself to become a space for dialogue and negotiation. The aborted gathering on Oct. 19 was one such attempt at a meeting.

Holy Trinity has long held to the importance of dialogue in matters of church and state. It has provided space not only for theological but also socio-political discussions in the past. Its pastoral mission stresses openness and dialogue, rooted in a commitment to reason and faith, prayer and service.

From these pastoral commitments too many on the staff of the parish and chaplaincy were and remain sympathetic to the principle behind the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa. The idea that tertiary education should never exclude talented young people who are poor is a moral judgment.

Similarly the belief that the means used by many protestors at Wits—class disruptions, damage to property, stone throwing and petrol bombs—is morally wrong (let alone strategically unwise), as is the often indiscriminate use of force by police, is another moral judgment.   

Why then has Trinity withdrawn from providing a space for meetings during the university crisis?

Quite simply it is because the terms by which it provided space have been violated. The aggressive intolerance that sections of the crowd gathered on Wednesday showed to Mr. Habib violated the principles by which Trinity made itself available.

Contrary to some who imagined Trinity to be “their” exclusive safe space, the principles of sanctuary and dialogue extended to everyone. It was never “their” exclusive space. It was not their right to decide who could or could not use the space. Holy Trinity is not part of Wits. In fact it is the older institution of the two, the big brother or sister. And as the property of the church it is there for everyone.

It has not been an easy two weeks for everyone involved in this crisis. Holy Trinity has been providing sanctuary in different forms for everyone for 119 years. It is worrying (and ironic) that participants in Wednesday’s #WitsPeaceAccord disturbed this century old landmark which has been a place where generations have found peace, solace and sanctuary.

After a long discussion and careful consideration the Jesuits feel that they have been given no other choice but to say that the church can no longer be used as a neutral venue if some constituencies have decided others are not welcome. Ministry, including to distressed and injured students, will continue. Meetings will not. It is another sad day and tragic turn in a crisis that seems far from being resolved in the higher education sector in South Africa.

Russell Pollitt, S.J., is one of America's Johannesburg correspondents.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
2 years 2 months ago
Fr Pugin s.j. andcompanions, we love you! You Fr Pugin especially are a great man. In my opinion, brave too reminicent of Wednesday's Liturgy... in Christ, Prince of Peace
Thomas Couture
2 years 2 months ago
This is a very interesting article. Can you give me a brief economic insight of what EACH SIDE of the #FeesMustFall movement is protesting? Thanks


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