A Jesuit priest shot in the face with a rubber bullet in South Africa’s students protest is out of danger, but the action has underlined the seriousness of the issue, which government is now trying to violently quell. Fr Graham Pugin of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg was shot on 10 October as Fees Must Fall protests at the Witwatersrand University (Wits) continued in a four-week running battle.
The Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) spokesman, Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria told The Tablet on Tuesday Pugin was struck by the bullet from a police gun while he raised his hands in peace. “When disturbances arose, students ran for the shelter of the church. Graham was outside the church and allowed them to enter. As he stood outside the church, a rubber bullet struck him,” Slattery said.
He was taken to the hospital where x-rays showed there was no damage on his jaw or teeth and his condition was stable, said the archbishop. “The shooting of Fr Graham has shocked and distressed many people, including students,” said Fr David Rowan SJ, Regional Superior of the Jesuits in South Africa.
Fr Rowan said that many prayers, well wishes and offers for assistance from across society had been received, including support from the Jesuit General Congregation currently meeting in Rome and the Vatican Ambassador to South Africa, Archbishop Pete Wells.
The Holy Trinity Catholic Church is next to Wits and students sought it aa a place of refuge. The church has hosted the mediation between students and universities authorities, with Fr Graham among the facilitators which included other clergy and former student leaders. The incident sparked more violent protests from students in the Braamfontein neighbourhood leading to a bus being torched and some stores in the area damaged.
The protests at Wits are part of national action demanding free university education across 26 public universities in South Africa. Fees have been contentious since last year. The government was forced to freeze fee increases for 2016. Demonstrations resumed last month when the government approved fee increases of up to 8 per cent for 2017 while subsidising the increment for students from families who earn less than £35,000 a year. After negotiations, most universities had resolved to reopen on Monday this week to save the collapse of the 2016 academic programme, but protests persisted at some institutions.
At Wits, Rowan said, the negotiation process has been stalled and the Jesuits were concerned by the sense of distrust between all the main players. He said high security presence and clashes between police and students have also heightened tensions, making negotiations, at this stage, much more difficult. The church agrees student protests are based on a genuine concern, said Archbishop Slattery.
“We are aware as a church of the inequality of opportunity for poor students trying to access a of level education,” he said. As bishops countrywide, we have assisted students with our limited resources, but we have not been able to help the majority of the deserving students, the archbishop added.
But, while students clamoured for more equality in access to good education at university, the bishops felt that, the students have made their point. “It is time now for the disturbances to end and for the academic year to continue and for exams to be written,” the archbishop said.
Slattery said, at this stage there is little more university authorities can do even though they have been sympathetic to the student's demands. He called on government and students to iron out their differences to ensure that this academic year is completed in peace.
“A compromise must be considered as the huge financial demands of universal free education cannot be met in one moment,” Slattery said. Rowan said Jesuits were ready to participate in mediation efforts so that a national solution can be found to the crisis in the higher education sector. We are concerned by the levels of violence and urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint so that an atmosphere conducive to negotiations may return,” he said.
Rowan added: "We believe there needs to be a national mediation effort to resolve the fees issue and stabilise the situation on campuses. We note the establishment of a national government task team on the fees crisis but believe that this alone will not deal with the problem. We believe there needs to be a concerted effort, involving all sectors of society, to deal with the historical context and systemic problems which make higher education inaccessible and unaffordable for millions of poor South Africans."