Campus protest: Laying down forks for democracy

Students are not known for passing up a meal. But on Monday last week, 875 students in the University of the Witwatersrand residence halls downed their forks and knives and refused to eat. The next day, about 2–000 more followed suit. Their boycott had nothing to do with the quality of the food, as one might suspect. Instead, they were expressing solidarity with 17 chefs who had been dismissed by their employer, Royal Mnandi Food Service Solutions, for insubordination in January. The chefs had refused to comply with what they felt was a unilateral order transferring them to new dining halls.
When hundreds of students gathered in front of the steps of the Wits Great Hall this Wednesday to demand that the university administration pressure Royal Mnandi to reinstate the workers, they drew from a standard protest repertoire – toyi-toying, singing struggle songs and delivering speeches fit for the Sunday pulpit to a crowd largely outfitted in a uniform of red T-shirts. But in its form, its target and its timing, the refusal to eat represents a departure from these more familiar protest strategies. Marked by silence and self-sacrifice, and organised through social media such as Twitter and Facebook, the form of the meal boycott stands in contrast to the boisterous marches seen on campuses nearly every year just after fee increases are announced. Its target is not the university itself, but a company sub-contracted by the university to provide one of its services. And its timing coincides with an intensifying debate both about protest and about the ethics of outsourcing at Wits and other universities. 
Any culture of protest, and the responses it provokes from those in authority, generates controversy and poses difficult questions for a community committed to democratic values. Take for example the potentially divisive debate that erupted over the decision to call municipal police onto the Wits campus during student protests in August 2009. In response, the University Senate called for the development of a consensual set of principles and values that would guide the practice and governance of protest on campus in future. Consensus around some points has been easy to come by. Virtually everyone agrees, for example, that the right to protest must be regarded as central to the educational project of the University as much as to its institutional culture. There is strong agreement that the right to protest must not only be protected, but nurtured, and that the repertoire of protest forms – except those which entail violence, intimidation or coercion – should be continuously and creatively expanded. 
But disagreement persists as to what limits should be placed on protest. Should disruption of classes, for example, be interpreted as a violation of the rights of students who do not share the values or goals of protestors, or who merely wish to get on with their studies undisturbed? Or is it the case that any protest must be disruptive in order to be worthy of the name? How else would protesters draw attention to the injustices perpetuated under conditions otherwise regarded as “normal”?
The Royal Mnandi boycott campaign adds further questions to this evolving debate. What happens when protesters assert, as they did on Wednesday, that if their demands are not met they will “render the university ungovernable” – or perhaps more ominously that they will “stop at nothing” to achieve their goals? Should such assertions be read as merely the performative use of political rhetoric? Or are they potentially dangerous incitements to violence that exceed what the university community has agreed to tolerate? What indeed are the boundaries of “the university community” within which agreed upon principles and values regarding protest should apply? Should the workers dismissed by Royal Mnandi for protesting their involuntary transfer to new work venues be excluded from that community simply because they are technically not in the employ of the university? Or should the principles and values that the university agrees to abide by apply to all those who study, live and work on its premises – including those who cook and serve the food, who clean the floors and toilets, and who prune the trees?
Such differences in viewpoint are inevitable, and undoubtedly they will characterise debate over how the university should respond to particular protest actions for years to come. The thousands of students who are refusing to eat their meals in the university residence halls force us to confront these insistent questions about the role of protest and dissent on university campuses and in society at large. Whether or not we agree that their cause is just or their methods justifiable, their protest reminds us that what is at stake, together with the fate of the 17 chefs, is the question of what kind of democracy we wish to create, what kinds of democratic values we want to live by, and the compass of the democratic community within which those values are held to apply.
Eric Worby is Director of the Humanities Graduate Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand and Chair of the Senate Working Group on Protest. He writes in his personal capacity.

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