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Of violent protests in South African universities: Where is the Church in South Africa?

Margaret Ssebunya

The past three years have been marked by violent protests in public universities in South Africa1. This violence has been sparked off by fee increments every year. “Fees must fall” has become a common slogan especially during the protests. This slogan is used by university students engaging in protest action demanding for ‘no fee increments’ and maximally ‘free university education’ (as promised by the government in the previous national campaigns). Very often these protests are characterized by a high level of violent destruction of university and public property in the surrounding communities. South Africa being a democratic nation allows its citizens to freely engage in demonstrations. As such, the fees must fall protests are justified on the grounds of constitutional democratic rights. However, in the process of enjoying and upholding their democratic rights, students end up destroying the very assets that are meant to help them during their study. Many question why students protesting against fee increments are using violent strategies and destroying the very facilities (some of which cannot be recovered) that would enhance their free education. In comparison, the fees must fall protests are not different from the service delivery protests that have been going on in the country in the sense that both are characterized by massive destruction of property including the very facilities that the government has set up to benefit the people. Could this be the only language that South African citizens can use in order to be heard? It appears that the violence that is justified as a ‘constitutional right’ is now becoming endemic in South African society.

The students’ struggle for increased access to education as well as a reduction in the costs of higher education is a noble cause and has been applauded by many. However, the violent methods used to pass the message cannot be condoned. In as much as demonstration is a constitutional right, I contest the way in which students are doing it. Whilst one would expect that protesting students march peacefully, there are incidents of protesting students ganging up against the ‘non-participants’ and forcing them out of lecture venues so that they join in the violent protests. Other ‘non-participants’ who hide in the halls of residence are pepper-sprayed and forced to come out of hiding to join the protesters. Additionally, destruction of property in several universities has become the norm. For instance, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), several properties were set alight including the law library at the Howard College campus; the main examination hall at the Pietermaritzburg campus; campus security building at the Westville campus; and several vehicles. There were also incidents of looting of grocery stores and closing of public roads near the university. As a result, the university was forced to go into an early recess. Other universities that have suffered major property destructions include University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology, and University of Western Cape.

Following the course of events in the campaign now dubbed 2016 Fees Must Fall Reloaded, tension remains high in all universities. Academic activities have been suspended in many universities and some are forced to temporarily shut down amidst calls by students for a total shut down. There is heavy security deployment as a result of the increasing level of violence by the students. Unfortunately, the students seem not to be willing to compromise, but rather prepare to fight to the very end in order to be heard. Students should stop hiding behind the constitution to justify their violent action. In enjoying their constitutional right, students ought to act responsibly during protests and to respect the constitutional rights of others to learn and work. It is not surprising that a number of students have disowned the protests and are distancing themselves from such acts of malicious cruelty. Actions of violent protest characterizing demonstrations in universities not only here in South Africa but also other African countries need to be confronted and condemned.

How then can students pass on the message without inconveniencing fellow students and the surrounding communities?  In my opinion, violent protest action characterizing South Africa could be a legacy of the past (during the apartheid government). There is an urgent need to break such culture of violence and resort to peaceful and nonaggressive strategies characterized by dialogue. Sadly, nonaggressive protest strategies seem to be lacking in a number of institutions of learning not only in South Africa but also in other African countries. The use of violence by protesting students is a threat to the stability of education not only in the particular countries but also on the African continent as a whole.

Surprisingly, a number of institutions including the Church, many of which fronted the nonaggressive struggle during the apartheid regime, are silent on the 2016 violent protests in universities. They are not audible in their criticism on what is happening. One would expect the Church especially to advocate for nonaggressive protests. The Church needs to reclaim its voice in the current students’ struggle for justice with regard to education.

1South Africa has about 26 public universities all of which are standing in solidarity on the fees issue.