Brains must beat fists

01 March 2012 - 03:19 By Jonathan Jansen
University of KwaZulu Natal students in Westville recently engaged in violent protest in the residents' section of the university.
University of KwaZulu Natal students in Westville recently engaged in violent protest in the residents' section of the university.

It has to stop now. The deadly cycle of violence that maims, humiliates and kills students on university campuses in this country must come to an end.

This week an education (believe it or not) student on the Mthatha campus of an Eastern Cape university stepped through a plastic skylight and fell to his death while his mates burnt tyres in the streets, stoned police and vandalised buildings.

Their demands?

They insist on being passed even though they have failed exams.

Prior to that, a spasm of violence spread across a Durban campus as riot police struggled to contain a crowd of belligerent youth whose student leader would spend a night in the dangerous Westville prison.

Who can forget the image of a cowering female student blanketed in the white froth of a fire extinguisher behind a male student threatening violence with the covered face of a coward?

A Cape Town university student collapses and is rushed to hospital after inhaling pepper spray used to disperse students who attacked security guards; at a Potchefstroom university campus, a student was left behind, found dead at the bottom of a university swimming pool after an alleged initiation ritual.

A Johannesburg student saw his mother crushed to death by other students while trying to register for his first year of study last month.

All of this within the first two months of the 2012 academic year in South Africa. The mounting body count is too high. This dreadful cycle of violence has to stop.

Why does this violence among university youth continue, and why does it so often become deadly?

The first reason is the lack of an authoritative voice of leadership that can condemn the violence.

Many of the protesters claim allegiance to political organisations. This means there must be a clear, unequivocal voice of condemnation that spreads throughout the student body on all 23 campuses that violence will not be tolerated.

The deafening silence of the political masters of these students is what gives the youth the message that they can act with impunity.

That clear voice of leadership is often lacking among us as university leaders. When last did you hear a university leader stand up in the public square and condemn student violence out of hand?

Without public leadership that speaks out, expect such wanton violence to continue.

The second reason is the failure of universities to deal effectively with the underlying demands of desperate students. The lack of financial aid lies at the root of the spiralling violence on campus.

When universities have exhausted their own meagre funds, and when the government-funded National Student Financial Aid Scheme runs out of money, students do not target government - they target their universities.

In the long run, the biggest threat to stable campuses in which young people can learn without the threat of constant disruption or study without fear of their physical wellbeing, is when there is adequacy in the financial aid allocations to deserving students. Strong, proactive management of student funding, clear and consistent communication about the limits of funding, and compassionate policies and plans that ensure that no academically deserving student is disallowed academic access together reduce the likelihood of violence.

The third reason is the failure of both universities and government to embed in institutional life clear norms for student behaviour.

The sad reality is that most of the students who protest are those who fail repeatedly without policies - or implemented policies - that prevent this from happening.

I have been astounded at how a student can ransack a place of higher learning because he demands re-admission after eight years of failure to obtain a three-year degree.

I know for a fact that some of the most destructive student leaders are fully funded by outside political parties because their role is to be either the enforcers or the resisters of "transformation" on university campuses. It's for this reason that there is such a silence on the part of political leaders, of all stripes, when deadly violence ensues. A university is not an island separated from the often violent, convulsive protests in communities outside the campus. Yet a place of higher learning must be counter-cultural and set a standard for human behaviour that meets two requirements.

One, encouragement of protests, dialogue, and disagreement on the key social problems of the day. This is fundamental to learning the habits of democracy on campuses. Two, the insistence on respect, tolerance and non-destructive behaviour in a place that privileges the head over the fist.