Students demand presidential pardon for #FeesMustFall charges

A group of student protesters from universities around Cape Town have handed over a memorandum of demands to Justice Minister Michael Masutha, demanding amnesty for those who were criminally charged during the #FeesMustFall protests.

The protest was chiefly in solidarity with Bonginkosi Khanyile, a student activist who has been convicted on charges of public violence and is due to be sentenced in October. Khanyile was found guilty of public violence after he aimed a slingshot at police during the protests over fees at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), where he was studying.

Khanyile was denied bail and spent five months in Durban’s Westville Prison.

READ MORE: Student leader Bonginkosi Khanyile aces studies while in jail

The DUT activist is now staging a sleep out outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria in a bid to secure a presidential pardon from President Cyril Ramaphosa.

On Wednesday, students in Cape Town were joined by Vuyani Pambo and Mcebo Dlamini, who have stood at the forefront of student protests at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Among them, were students who had been granted amnesty by the University of Cape Town (UCT) for their role in some of the violent protests on campus — namely the #Shackville protests where paintings were torched.

During that protest in 2016, student protestors erected a corrugated iron shack to demonstrate the reality faced by numerous students who claim they had been overlooked by UCT’s housing policies.

Around the country, the protests — which initially drew public support — were condemned after violence erupted in a plume of police teargas and rubber bullets; and in torched cars and buildings by the students. The police crackdown, which happened at a time when the then State Security Minister David Mahlobo had begun playing an increasingly prominent role in the government’s response to the protest, was suspected of being a state-sanctioned suppression of the protest.

As the students protested on Wednesday, at least four police vehicles were parked near them, including two large nyalas. The protest was a rare moment of unity as a small group of students from the ANC, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania (a Pan Africanist Congress formation) and the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command rubbed shoulders outside Parliament.

They were clear, however, that their demand for amnesty was not an admission of guilt.

“We as students use the word amnesty with reluctance because the word suggests that there was an offence for which one must be pardoned. We categorically believe that when we decided to protest it was for a just cause and the violence that ensued as a result was because of the provocation of the police,” said Khululwa Mthi, a student activist from UCT.

Across the country, students are facing trial and jail time for criminal charges related to the #FeesMustFall protests.

“As much as we can celebrate the announcement of government [that there will be free education], there are some of us who are still going through court cases alone,” said UCT student protester Masixole Mlandu, who narrowly avoided jail time for his participation in #FeesMustFall protests after he was sentenced to community service. “As a generation, it cannot be that we celebrate the fruits of our struggle, but leave those who have sacrificed behind.”

Justice Minister Michael Masutha received the memorandum of demands from students, which is addressed to the Speaker of Parliament. It is Masutha’s office which is tasked with dealing with applications for presidential pardons, and the minister said that his office is willing to help students and offer assistance to obtain legal representation for those who need it.

The students’ demands also include the establishment of a nationwide truth and reconciliation process to help universities, students and government understand how the violence unravelled during the course of the protests. Additionally, students want the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to be disbanded and for the provision of land for adequate student housing. Gender-based violence on campus and in the country as a whole must also be addressed, they said, through government and universities working together to clampdown on such violence.

Khanyile plans to sleep outside the Union Buildings until Ramaphosa responds to his request for a pardon, but his may be a long wait as Ramaphosa is in the National Assembly on Wednesday answering questions.

“We are tired of going to court for so long for this thing, especially after the pronouncement that free education is being endorsed by the state. Why are people being prosecuted for #FeesMustFall activities if the government acknowledges that it is a noble cause?,” said Mthi. 

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.
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