“I risked my life for people who were in danger. They happened to be students and street people‚” says Father Graham Pugin‚ the priest who was shot in the face this week during the #FeesMustFall protests at Wits University.
Father Graham is recovering well‚ but he has chosen to be “discreet” in case “my presence is provocative to one side or the other”.
He will be making his first appearance since the incident‚ at Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Sunday where he will be giving a talk on his commitment to non-violence.
“I am feeling as well as anyone can feel having been shot in the mouth with a rubber bullet‚” Father Graham says with a chuckle as he welcomes TMG Digital to the premises of the Jesuit Institute in Auckland Park on Friday.
Soup‚ scrambled eggs and any food that “slops” into the mouth have been Father Graham’s staple since he was struck by the bullet.
He was injured on Monday after intervening between police and protesting students from the University of the Witwatersrand. His upper lip is still swollen and the stitches are visible.
Just moments before he was shot‚ he had managed to stop an armoured police personnel carrier from entering the church courtyard by blocking the gate with his body.
He raised his hand and the charging police nyala stopped.
The events of the day he was shot while standing at the gate of the church where he ministers‚ are‚ according to him‚ reminiscent of the apartheid regime.
“It is very similar. It is state oppression and I am prepared to do what I can to resist that.”
“As I have said to my brethren‚ if we were doing this in the 70s‚ in the 80s‚ in the 90s‚ if only we got it right we wouldn’t have to be doing it now‚ but the current regime isn’t entirely different from the past.”
Graham says a number of meetings had taken place at the church prior to the shooting on Monday. These involved facilitators from the university who had asked to use the church as a discreet place where they could hide.
“A number of meetings between various parties had happened at Trinity. The mediators had met with #FeesMustFall people. Mediators had met with [Vice Chancellor] Adam Habib. At no point did we actually manage to get all parties in the room at the same time.
Wits students‚ Father Graham says‚ recognised Holy Trinity as a place of sanctuary during the protests.
“If we are seen as a safe space‚ as a sanctuary‚ that is fine by me. It obviously caused problems for the university because once the gate was broken open‚ there was no way they could stop students getting back on to campus and they could no longer control…”
The church and the university had agreed the gate going onto the campus from the church would remain locked.
“The deal we have with the university is that we keep that gate locked and open it on weekends and we have done that but when students are fleeing from tear gas and rubber bullets‚ I have opened and I am quite prepared to open that gate in order to provide the sanctuary that I believe is the role of the church.
However‚ Father Graham says that this will no longer be possible because the university has welded the gate shut so that students cannot escape from campus anymore.
“On Monday‚ I had had an exchange at that same gate with a policeman because when the gate was locked all morning and when the shooting happened‚ I opened it myself.
“The policeman didn’t appreciate and insisted that I should lock the gate and I refused.
“I think he was very frightened and angry. Once I’d calmed him down‚ we came to a perfectly amicable arrangement.
“We left the gate unlocked and he allowed any student wanting to leave the campus‚ but he did not allow anyone onto the campus. I was very happy with that arrangement.”
“Then somebody came with a padlock and chain and padlocked the gate shut‚ so there was no possibility of anyone coming through and they stationed three policemen at the gate.”
Once the gate was locked‚ Father Graham says he turned his attention to the front gate.
“There was a lot of unrest in the streets of Braamfontein. Students who were off campus were congregating in Braamfontein. And I again insisted on keeping the gate open so we provided a safe sanctuary for anybody who was being shot at.
“I made it clear that no weapons were to be brought into our property and the students recognised that.”
“I was standing at the gate of the church. There was a lot going on .… At various points students would scream and run up the road.”
Father Graham says while the shooting was going on‚ and as students and street people ran into the church to take refuge‚ he stood his ground and did not move‚ even when he was confronted by the armoured vehicle.
“I stood my ground and the next thing I knew I had been hit in the mouth. I didn’t see that coming.
“My life has been committed to non-violence .… I was court marshalled in 1979 by the South African Defence Force for refusing to kill people.
“I was arrested in 1981 for leading a demonstration of seminarians.”
Father Graham supports the idea of free education and believes it is attainable.
“I believe in free‚ quality education. I don’t approve of using violence as a means to get it but I think it’s an admirable goal.
“Free quality education is possible. They can provide it from the back of their pockets with the money they have been stealing before they have to make any extra taxes.
“They can provide it out of the money of the nuclear power plant that we don’t need.
“If the government lacks the political will to what is obviously right‚ it can also be done by a public-private partnership‚” Graham contends.
He says it would be “awful” if the fees must fall protests continue as people will get hurt each time the police or private security “get out of hand”.
“We really do not need to get the student leadership to meet with university management. It’s all too easy to paint Adam Habib as the great demon of the entire scene.
“He’s not an easy man‚ but I don’t believe he is an evil man. He says he is committed to completing the academic year.
“I think the students are committed to completing the academic year‚ if only we could get everybody in the same place at the same time‚ maybe the negotiations can take place.
The Holy Trinity church was founded in 1897‚ long before Wits was established.
Apart from providing sanctuary for Wits students‚ the church has‚ for many years opened its doors to street people.“We have been running a soup kitchen‚ which provides meals for the street people every morning between from Monday to Friday. We get between 80 and 200 people every morning‚” Father Graham says.
The church also provides meals for underprivileged students‚ most of whom are on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). – TMG Digital