News24’s deputy video editor Aletta Harrison covered the protests against gender-based violence in Cape Town last week, and writes about her shock when she realised how state machinery is used against those who need the state’s protection.
If the arts are the pinnacle of culture and refinement, it explains why the sight of stun grenades exploding among sculptures outside the Artscape Theatre seemed so jarring.
But after three days of covering the protests against gender-based violence in Cape Town, that’s not even the most disturbing image that lingers in my mind.
A day earlier I’d followed a big group of protesting students – many of them schoolchildren – as they marched and skipped down the road to block a major intersection.
Their goal was to force the country to stop and take meaningful steps to end the onslaught against our women and girls.
But their protest permit did not extend to this location and it wasn’t long before they received a warning from the riot police that they had to move, or would be forced to do so.
Let’s pause for one moment to acknowledge who these protesters were – not a mob of fired-up, political fanatics, but mostly children and young students who were unarmed.
‘You’re not dying here, not today’
Within five minutes, chaos erupted and journalists were darting around frantically. I saw a struggle and sprinted over to see what was happening. At that moment, a girl managed to break free from several police officers. She stormed off, clearly shaken and ruffled. I went after her to find out what had happened.
She said: “I don’t know, I don’t know.” I asked her if she was hurt, but she said she had just been sitting and the next moment she was grabbed. My footage I viewed afterwards confirmed she had been one of the ones staging a sit-in on the road surface moments before.
“I’m a rape survivor,” she suddenly blurted out and burst into tears. All I could think to do at that moment was to take her in my arms and hold her as she sobbed. I am human before I’m a journalist after all. She added: “They don’t know what this means to me.”
Moment later she pulled herself together and screamed: “If I must die, I’ll die here!”
I told her: “You’re not dying here, not today.”
I saw these kids – some of them toughened, sure, because they have to be to survive in this country – being shoved, pushed, pepper sprayed, knocked off their feet with a water cannon, dodging stun grenades – because they are trying to highlight violence and brutality that they no longer want to live with.
Does the state not see the irony?
Our born-frees deserve so much better
I found myself wondering: how many of these youngsters will go to the police to seek help when they are in trouble? Probably none. And therein lies a big part of our problem, South Africa. The protectors and the persecutors have become one and the same in the eyes of the youth.
The numbers of police employed to spare the World Economic Forum from embarrassment or disruption; the police used against those crying out for better protection – it is utterly shameful.
Have we become so desensitised to protests in this country that we think it’s OK to brutalise minors in this way?
Add to that the cause that brought them out onto the streets in the first place and it seems like a hopeless farce.
Our born-frees deserve so much better and I’m utterly ashamed that this is the country they’ve inherited from us.