Wednesday, May 18, 2011

UNREST IN BOTSWANA : STUDENTS AND WORKERS RIOT

The students had gathered at the entrance to Kgari Sechele Senior Secondary School where the previous day they had threatened violence over the fact that they had not been taught because their teachers have joined other public service employees in the ongoing strike that is now in its third week.

"We were just standing peacefully waiting for our colleagues from other schools to join us. Then the police arrived and without warning started shooting," said a student.

Then all hell broke loose. Gathered in a place awash with stones, the irate students picked up the only weapons available to them and retaliated. The police found the missiles too much to bear. Their perspex shields offered little protection from the thousands of pellets from over 3,000 children. To add to their misery the police ran out of rubber bullets and teargas canisters. So they took to their heels, with the little boys and girls, like one mighty army, in hot pursuit. Finding themselves too far away from their vehicles and the police station - a good two kilometres away - the police took refuge in a local mini-mall and quickly closed the metal door leading into the mall. But the incensed boys and girls surrounded the shop and rained stones upon it as the police stood behind the barricaded metal door into the mall, trying in vain to block the missiles from outside.

The stone storm beat upon the building, many of the stones hitting and injuring the legs and feet of the men and women of the law. The shop owners realised that they could not just sit as stones whizzed by. They closed their shops and sneaked out through a back exit at Shoppers, which is the biggest store in the mini mall.

"Too many stones were landing into the shop and we were afraid that they (the stone throwers) would break our door, so we rolled down our trelli-door (burglar door) and sneaked our customers out through the backdoor as the students continued to pelt the police with stones," said Shoppers' Store Manager, Bernard Petrus.

Petrus, like three others who operate from the premises, would find his car's windows smashed, once the students' anger had burned itself out and they started dispersing and joining the public servants picketing at a local square.

And the marks of the mayhem remained for everyone to see: broken shop windows, farm produce, oranges, and other merchandise lay strewn all over, having been trampled upon or eaten by the marauding students.

"They took all my air time and oranges. All those peels that you see came from my oranges. I remain empty-handed," said a tearful airtime vendor. All her colleagues in the area suffered the same fate. "Imagine, they even chased away an old woman selling ditoo (black-eyed peas)," said another woman. The woman's ditoo dotted the entrance to the mall. And you would imagine the children either did not find the peas too tasty or they simply never realised they were trampling on the cuisine.

The road passing by the shop remained closed for some time as timid motorists avoided playing brave. A taxi driver, who had stood in the way as the students passed by, learnt the hard way after hundreds of missiles struck and broke his windows.

"Monna it does not help to think you are brave. Goliath died from a stone thrown by little David," someone quipped. At the square where the public employees were picketing a Good Samaritan gathered some of the injured children into his car and took them to hospital. The children: three boys aged 14, 16 and 17 and a 13-year-old girl. The girl had been shot in the belly, while the boys had been shot one in the chest, another in the shoulder and the last on the hand.

Two kilometres away from where the one-way battle had raged, Deputy Police Commissioner Ikotlhaeng Bagopi and senior officers from the police, among them Molepolole Station Commander Andrew Bosilong, Superintendent Mbayi of the Special Support Group, a captain from the BDF and an entourage from the District Commissioner's officer met in a crisis meeting. A stone's throw away from the crisis meeting, in another compound a group of about 20 children sat huddled together in an office as two police officers took turns to rebuke them.

"A kere le bona gore le dule setlhabelo sa ba bangwe?" [See now you have sacrificed yourselves on behalf of other people?]," a female police officer derided the wide-eyed juveniles as outside 12 officers, all barefooted, limped from a police combi with bandaged legs, knees and feet.

"A sona strike lo a se itse? A lo itse gore go tewa eng?" said another female officer, as she breathed down the necks of the children. One of the children later told The Monitor that he was picked up by the police on his way from lunch at home and had no inkling why he was arrested. He said that like most of his schoolmates, he was a student at Motswasele Junior Secondary School and that the police pounced upon him as he returned to school from lunch at home.

Back at the entrance to the Regional Police Headquarters, where the crisis meeting was taking place, a man, who had just disembarked from a government vehicle, shrieked loud enough for all to hear about how careless the police officer in charge of the police, who battled with children, had been.

"The police found the children standing by peacefully. And the officer would not even listen to the District Commissioner who was asking him to first talk with the children and not just attack them, but he pushed aside the District Commissioner and ordered his men to open fire. See now what has happened?" he said as several battle-ready riot police listened. It would later turn out that the "District Commissioner" referred to was, in fact, a District Officer. Then someone called one of the men standing at the entrance. One of the police officers had just been released after he was found crouching in one of the stores. The owners returned to find the officer, still scared out of his wits, in the store.

"The guy is lucky that the owners came back. He would have spent the night in shop," the message receiver said to his colleague, mirth written on his face. "Leso legolo ditshego rra!" [to avoid crying at the sound of bad news, we laugh] said the other man as they both laughed at the apparent cowardice of the constable.

Deputy Commissioner Bagopi finished his meeting to find a group of journalists waiting for him at the entrance.

He said the situation was difficult, as a number of things had gone wrong. However, he was quick to say that the officer, who ordered the police to shoot, had not been careless.

"We need to appreciate that currently there is a peaceful strike by public officers. However, we also need to appreciate that a strike can degenerate into a riot as a catalyst can come from anywhere...the children were expected to be at school and not picketing. The fact that they were picketing shows that the authorities that should normally manage them had not been able to manage them, thus it was important that the police had to come in...in this country the law is sacrosanct and you don't march unless you have a permit," he said. However he admitted that a number of things could have been done better. One of those was the arrest of the children who were interrogated in the absence of their parents or social workers.

"I have instructed that the kids be freed to their parents," he said. It would be another two hours after the order, and further intervention by council authorities and the DC's office before the children could be freed. The situation remains calm but uncertain.


THE MONITOR

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