Some of you may have seen it splashed across the newspapers of the world: the iconic image of a Catholic priest, peacefully interposing his cassock-clad body between an armoured military vehicle and the open gate of a Church-cum-shelter and first aid clinic for students fleeing dangerous confrontation with police.
An image highlighting the South African university crisis and its far-reaching consequences.
Shortly after that photograph was taken Jesuit Father Graham Pugin was shot in the face with a rubber bullet as he stood as a human shield between Holy Trinity Catholic Church which is right next to university and riot police who had ordered him to lock the gate.
Father Graham was wounded in the mouth and is now recovering at the Jesuit Institute of South Africa in Johannesburg
The South African student demonstrations began last October at Johannesburg’s main University when students blocked the entrance to the campus, following indications that the institution would raise fees by 10.5% this year.
Under the banner #FeesMustFall the protests have led to the closure of some of the country’s top universities.
Father Graham, who spoke to Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni two days after the incident, has been one of the facilitators, along with other clergy and student leaders, working towards an agreement between students, management and other University stakeholders.
He says he hopes Holy Trinity Catholic Church will continue to serve as a safe and sacred space for negotiations. He also speaks of the continuing chain of injustice that is being perpetrated in South Africa and of the situation of so many young people who are unable to break the cycle of poverty that is crippling the nation because they cannot afford to pay for education…
Father Graham Pugin SJ recounts the dramatic events that led to his injury explaining how he was present as always on Mondays at Holy Trinity Church, which is not on the University Campus, but surrounded on three sides by the campus. and facing an open street.
“During this time of unrest I have tried to be present for the students, for anybody involved, providing a safe and sacred space – a place of refuge, a place of sanctuary – which I believe is the Church’s role in these situations” he says.
He says that in light of failed negotiations on Friday, there were expectations of violence on Monday and he had been asked whether he could provide safe parking for ambulances in the Church’s parking ground.
He tells of how each time (and there have been several times) he has heard the sounds of shots on campus and the sounds of screaming as students flee, and of how he dashes outside into the parking lot and “wherever the people are coming from he has tried to be there to reassure frightened, panicking students” as well as “frightened, panicking policemen”.
Father Graham says that contrary to an unwritten agreement he has with authorities, on Monday he had unlocked inter leading gates between the Church and the university, and entered into an altercation with a policeman who insisted he lock the gate.
He says the gates were then forcibly locked on the university side but Fr Graham made sure the gate on the Church side would remain open for those coming from the road and promised to do all he could to make sure that it would stay open in order to maintain that “safe and sacred space”.
“I went and stood at the Church gate in my alb as I always have done whenever the tensions have been high, making it perfectly clear that I am a clergyman, making sure I am perfectly visible” he says.
As he stood there, Fr Graham says every now and then a wave of students would run screaming up the road towards the Church, and they were allowed in provided they were totally unarmed.
“As I looked down the road I saw a large vehicle with guns pointing out moving very slowly across the intersection, firing all the while towards us” he says.
He says he presumes they were rubber bullets and points out that to his knowledge live ammunition has not been used in these circumstances, but it was certainly enough to cause panic and cause students to flee.
Fr. Graham also speaks of the first aid clinic that operates underneath the Church in emergency situations thanks to volunteers who stand by. He says the situation was very fraught and violent on Monday morning and, although he was personally injured during the shooting and had to be assisted, he remembers at least two ambulances on the scene with various students needing medication.
He points out that historically the Church in South Africa has provided a neutral venue for negotiations and sanctuary in situations of unrest or difficulty.
“The Church has been trying to provide the kind of service and ministry that the Church ought to provide for the last 60 years” he says.
During the apartheid struggle, he says “we were often the only place people could find shelter, and we did that – I did it myself – in the Church in the 70’s, in the 80’s in the 90’s…” .
Fr Graham tells of how he was one of the first conscientious objectors and was court marshalled in 1979 for refusing conscription and of how he always took part in the struggle against injustice dedicating his life to opposing violence and resisting peacefully in many charged occasions.
He explains that until he was shot he was involved as a facilitator, along with other clergy and student leaders working towards an agreement between the students, management and other stakeholders at the University of Witwatersrand.
Fr Graham said he had been asked by the facilitators whether they could use the Church of Holy Trinity as a safe place where they could meet out of the glare of the media, and he tells of how groups of many different constituencies were using the Church as a place of refuge and dialogue.
He says his hope is that all parties involved will be able to come to a just and peaceful solution but points out that in South Africa “it is very difficult to advance both those simultaneously under the circumstances”.
Fr Graham says ‘reconciliation’ – a very loaded word in South Africa – is far from having been completed.
He says the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ did a wonderful job, but it was limited in its scope and that there is still huge amount of work to be done, even within the student body which is seen as being very polarized racially, and even more so “in this very volatile situation”.
Father Graham says he will be going back to his ministry as soon as his presence won’t be judged ‘provocation’ on one side or the other.
“I am looking forward to going back because my real business is there helping the poor, running the soup kitchen” he says.
And speaking of the scheme he has been running for feeding some of the students who are so poor they cannot afford to eat, he says: “all this is about poverty and students”.
And this brings the conversation back to the #FeesMustFall protests because, Father Graham explains, the students certainly cannot afford to pay increased tuition fees.
“There are 36,000 students at the university; 22,000 of those are on government loans that they will have to pay back, and those loans cover their university fees and their accommodation but nothing else and so they are, by definition, very poor; then there are some 6,000 students who are well funded either by their families or by bursaries; and in between there are 8,000 who do not qualify for government assistance and whose families cannot afford to support them: they are children of domestic workers, of labourers, of school teachers and policemen” he says.
So, Father Graham says, the chain of inequality in South Africa continues appallingly, “and that’s what this is all about”.
And he says he is convinced that the question can only be resolved by the government, something that would be financially possible “if all the money that disappears into corruption and into the back pockets of government ministers – if that were available there would be no difficulty – all it needs is the political will”.
After the shooting Father Graham Pugin received an “unconditional apology” by a police delegation and an official investigation into the incident has been instituted.
Amongst the messages of solidarity and concern he has been receiving are the prayers and closeness of his Jesuit brothers who are currently gathered in their General Congregation in Rome, and he says, Archbishop Peter Wells, the apostolic nuncio to South Africa has also given him great support.
Father Graham concludes: “Anyone who hears this interview: please keep praying. We desperately, desperately need your prayers”.