University protests: Nobody’s constitutional rights are absolute
Media coverage of the havoc at South African universities has failed to clarify what is really happening and who is really to blame. We hear and read reports about protest action, but we struggle to clearly understand whether the alleged causes of the protests are legitimate or even what they are.
The Rhodes Must Fall Movement (RMFM) at UCT complained that black students were not being housed in residences and white students were being given preference.
In a statement on 17 February 2016, vice-chancellor Dr Max Price said something completely different. Over 75% of residence beds are allocated to and occupied by black students. Strong preference is given to students on financial aid. As UCT only has accommodation for a quarter of its students, it assists with off-campus accommodation.
Attempts to find accommodation were compromised because the RMFM invaded and shut down UCT's residence offices for three days in early February. The protests of 2015 complicated matters due to the deferment of exams and late results.
UCT had no problem with ‘the shack’ protest but the shack was erected in the middle of the road that crosses the campus and disrupted traffic. Traffic backed up onto the highways coming on to campus. Fires were lit around the shack and RMF protesters intimidated students and staff, including two assaults.
Management asked RMF to move the shack 20 to 30 metres from where it was: still prominent, but not disruptive. RMF rejected the request, saying that if they were going to move it there would be violence. They mobilised a crowd of students who then lit fires, barricades and tyres.
Students invaded residences and kitchens, stole food and served it to people who were not meant to be in the residences. They intimidated people in the residences, and removed and burnt artworks and portraits.
Private security was insufficient so the police were called, but there were further arson attacks. A bus was burnt, another was damaged, a police vehicle was torched, a small UCT vehicle was burnt and a petrol bomb was thrown into the vice-chancellor’s office.
On 24 February, five buildings on UCT’s upper campus were strewn with sewage.
A Wits University bus was destroyed by arson on 17 February. About 15 students were on the bus when they smelt petrol and burning on a back seat. They tried to put the fire out with an extinguisher but couldn’t. They fled the bus and it then burnt out. The perpetrators, who had been dropped off at a men’s residence may be guilty of attempted murder.
At the University of Pretoria the sinisterly titled EFF Students Command (EFF-SC), the Progressive Youth Alliance (ANC and SACP aligned) and the ANC Youth League demanded that Afrikaans, as a medium of instruction, be scrapped. The initial impression was that the demand was that there needed to be an increase or improvement in English language tuition as, somehow they were being disadvantaged by the instruction at UP being in Afrikaans or mostly in Afrikaans.
Vice-chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey denies this. All courses are taught in English; some are also taught in Afrikaans. Note “also” not “instead of”. One student interviewed on radio said that it was unfair for Afrikaans students to write exams in their mother tongue while black students did not.
Protestors at UFS vandalised a residence, defaced a statue and protested against outsourcing. The protestors comprised staff and students, apparently, representing the EFF and ANC. It is unlikely that the strike by staff was legal – we don’t know.
Once again the EFF Students Command started protests at NWU over outsourcing. Also management had disbanded the EFF-controlled SRC. Consequently the EFF-SC disrupted the inauguration of the new SRC. The Science Centre at the Mahikeng Campus was set alight causing millions of rands worth of damage. We do not know what the reasons for the disbanding of the SRC were and whether it was justified or not.
A common thread running through this dreadful narrative is role of the EFF-SC. It suggests that the EFF-SC may be organised, anarchic force. However, the EFF in general – and leader Julius Malema in particular – have been given a free pass on this. All the EFF has said so far is that the burning of the building at NWU cannot be blamed on the students. Otherwise allegations of violent behavior, and what the EFF intends to do about it, have not been addressed at all.
Some have complained of the involvement of a third force in these protests. Others have refuted this as the imaginings of reactionaries. One cannot deny huge societal problems many of which may affect students; but nothing justifies this behaviour. Nothing. There must be consequences for illegitimate demands and actions in support of those demands. It’s a lesson that must be taught by civil society. The country’s leadership is too morally compromised to have much impact.
Robert Morell, a scholar of gender and masculinity, and employee at UCT, writes the following (Daily Maverick, 22 February 2016):
“Current campus violence does not follow in the tradition of non-violence and peace. These actions show no promise to contribute to the building of a consensual process that upholds democracy, invites the views of everybody and is bound by frameworks established to ensure that such processes have a fair outcome.
This campus violence rather is an expression of a worrying close-mindedness, a myopia, which refuses to acknowledge any other point of view – not even that of the vast majority of students – and insists on being the only voice that should be heard and heeded. When it fails to persuade its audience, it uses violence.
This has been the way of fascism in the 20th century and of extremist, non-democratic movements in the 21st century.
Campus violence has up to now occurred with virtually no action taken against perpetrators. They have operated with impunity. I cannot speculate about the reasons for the lack of consequence that has attended the perpetration of violence but the widespread sympathy of the media has contributed to the view that students are ‘right’ and that their actions are therefore justified. In this sense, the media are complicit with the perpetration of campus violence because they contribute to a climate that legitimizes it.
South Africa is a constitutional democracy and there are ways of expressing dissent that are legal and, at many universities, encouraged. The choice to use violence contributes to a grim South African tradition of violence. South Africans should condemn its use. By the same token, they should support efforts to keep Universities as spaces where people are free to listen; speak; write; think; learn; imagine; persuade; dissent; study; analyse; reflect. These are radical activities in their own right and they are the right of all South Africans, not just the RMF supporters.”
The media must be more probing and critical. It must keep track of and regularly report on who is being criminally charged and/or disciplined in consequence of protest action, what they are being charged with, whether they are being convicted or expelled, to which student bodies they belong and whether, in fact, they are actually students. It is mundane leg work but it could do our democracy a huge favour.
Nobody’s constitutional rights are absolute. The right to protest and freedom of expression are always limited by the extent to which they infringe other people’s rights. Protestors have to learn that laws and rules regulate society for a reason, and adherence to not to those rules is not solely for them to determine.
Section 29 of the Constitution makes further education a right which the state must make progressively available and accessible. It should not be an inalienable right. Tertiary education is a privilege which every student must work hard and gratefully to realise.
The behaviour we are witnessing is not an expression of ‘justifiable’, historical hurt and anger. It is more immediate, more calculated and more visceral.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.