Student protests welcome – as long as it’s peaceful

The events that have taken place at South African universities since October 2015 and, to an extent, since the beginning of this year have ushered in not our own Arab Spring but rather a “South African summer”, characterised by the “youth bulge” that was spearheaded by the class of 2015.

These events have put into sharp relief issues of governance, access, transformation and, of course, protest. The protest actions and the responses to them have pitted students, academics and university managers – and even the state – against each other in different ways, and we have seen dialogues of the deaf and manipulations of the truth.

As far as the season of protests is concerned, there are those who have made the case for the right to protest at all costs while turning a blind eye to deliberate provocation, planned instability and even calculated attempts to implode universities. Such protesters have demanded that university authorities respect that right, no matter what the cost.

On the other hand, there are those who have defended the responsibility of university managers to protect life, property and the integrity of the academic programme, even at the cost of the right to protest – and for that right to protest to be truncated, even revoked, regardless of the implications for protesters. “Arrest those buggers!” went the cry.

But this is no beauty contest between the verligtes and the verkramptes, the doves and the hawks. Sometimes, in recent months, the hawks were the doves and those who portrayed themselves as doves often behaved like hawks – the hardliners.

This issue is not simply one of right or wrong, good or bad. It is not a matter of the proverbial black or white. This issue, like many others, is not about puritanism; a balanced, nuanced approach is called for.

The issue of protests is a vexing one. It is shaped by circumstances and by a social and political context, and shrewdness, judiciousness and engaged, negotiated responses are needed.

The obligations of protesters
One need not be a lawyer to appreciate that our Constitution, which came about through hard-fought battles, defends the right to peaceful protest. But it is the idea of peaceful protests that should be stressed here, not opportunistic, anarchic, planned, destructive actions. To cite the Constitution: “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.”

There is no gainsaying that the right to protest contains an innate, often forgotten requisite: that protest be peaceful and nonviolent. Those who have defended the rights of students have found it difficult to make this point, and have often turned a blind eye to those who have hijacked the legitimate actions and causes of students and workers and used them to pursue nefarious agendas.

They could not bring themselves to recognise that protesters must respect the rights of others. We cannot be seen to be playing ostrich politics when lives, university property and the rights of individuals are endangered.

What has been missing from the debate to date is a discussion of the obligations of protesters.

Certainly, the management at universities should curb any tendency to produce heavy-handed responses; they should not resort to what Mia Swart in the Mail & Guardian (“Campus security: Students are not the enemy”, January 28) called overbearing “securitisation”.

Yet it is just as crucial that those bent on making campuses academically ungovernable, to force university managements and the government to accede to their requests for free tertiary education, are sent clear messages about the expectation of sound and progressive conduct.

We cannot stress enough that both university authorities and protesting students and staff have a responsibility to create a climate in which protest is welcomed and in which ideas can contend and flourish.

It is not just university managers who must learn to embrace engagement and a culture of dialogue. Protesters, too, should respect the letter and spirit of the Constitution. The suggestion that university managers are the villains and protesters the victims does not stand up to scrutiny. All sides of these divides have obligations.

Stakeholders’ responsibility
University management bodies have a responsibility to ensure that academic life happens in a context of safety. To the extent that they may feel the need to resort to “securitisation”, they also have a duty to ensure that security personnel, even police, conduct themselves in a manner befitting a human rights ethos and not in a gung-ho fashion.

Just as protesters should not infringe on the rights of others, so security guards should not violate the rights of protesters or those of the general university community. Such personnel have a responsibility to ensure the security of both those who are protesting and those who are not.

During the student summer of 2015, we did not just witness provocations and threats to universities; we also saw propaganda tactics, embedded journalism and clear attempts to defame for the sake of making the academy ungovernable.

There is no point in condoning violent and opportunistic behaviour bent on imploding universities and academic institutions. All stakeholders should seek to preserve a space for the contestation of ideas. Just as some wish to protest, others wish not to do so.

All of us must embrace a new ethos of university protest that embodies a citizenship approach. We must realise that a university is a community that requires a balance between rights and duties, and we should not glorify or turn a blind eye to the malady of settling differences through violence.

The focus of protest actions should not be on protest for the sake of protest, designed to put pressure on the government and management bodies by mobilising the media and other support to push for vague notions of change. Protest should focus on clearly articulated transformative goals that are not only more just and equitable but also feasible, affordable and sustainable. This is the only way to achieve participatory governance.

Chris Landsberg is the South African Research Chairs Initiative chair of African diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg, a senior associate in the UJ school of leadership and the acting director of the Institute for Pan-African Political Thought and Conversation.

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