Student protests: when fear and loathing trump hope and unity

21 February 2016 - 02:00 By Adam Habib and Sizwe Mabizela
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The current student protests on campuses throughout the country are distinctly different from those witnessed last year.

The protesting communities no longer represent the nonracial, multiclass alliance that united the entire student community and mobilised the support of multiple stakeholders in our society.

Instead, the protest movements have been hijacked by small groups that are using increasingly violent methods of protest to convey their anger at what they call the systemic oppression of black people.

In recent weeks, we have seen "art activations" using offensive language to communicate forms of anger against systems; T-shirts and graffiti clearly demonstrating hate speech; malicious damage to property; and buses and artwork being burnt.


The modus operandi of these groups has clearly changed from the diverse movement that united across race, class, culture and gender lines, to one that is highly politicised, downright violent and even racist.

The demand of the students - that of access to quality, free higher education for those who cannot afford it - remains legitimate. However, the motives and the protest methods being used by the current student protesters are unlawful and transgress the constitutional rights of others. Where once student leaders inspired hope and unity, they now inspire fear and polarisation.

The tragedy is that universities are now forced to redirect valuable resources away from issues that really matter - scholarships, food and accommodation for needy students, and support for the academic project - to fund private security services in order to protect staff members, students and property.

Universities are left with little choice - the costs of losing a life, of people being harmed, of malicious damage to property, and of losing the academic year are too ghastly to contemplate.

However, this means that the poor are further impoverished by the actions of the very groups claiming to be fighting for their rights.

If we allow this situation to continue without challenging it, the free and safe space of our universities will be compromised, and our institutions will be irreparably harmed.


If our universities are indeed destroyed, it will not affect the wealthy, who can afford to send their offspring to universities abroad or fork out for private higher education that will no doubt fill the void.

It is ultimately the poorest in our society and the middle classes who will miss out on obtaining a high-quality tertiary education. This will be truly tragic, for we will simply reinforce the very inequalities that we hope to challenge, address and eradicate.

Given our context and the challenges that we face, the violence and racism encapsulated by the protests cannot be addressed through security measures alone. Instead we require a broader societal response to bring these challenges to heel.

Three separate elements are required in this regard.

First, we need to hold to account protesting students and others who engage in unlawful behaviour for their actions. It is up to parents to call to account their sons and daughters when they engage in violent and disruptive activities.

Although it is understandable for a parent to encourage and support their activist son or daughter, it is unhelpful when that parent tacitly approves what is patently unacceptable and unlawful conduct, such as the burning of art and vehicles and the torching of an office.

It is also up to all of us as ordinary citizens, university management, academics, professional and administrative staff, and students to stand up to these small splinter movements which act #NotInOurName.

We have to call out those among us who are resolute on effecting harm, causing division and polarising our communities. We also need to be bold enough to rise against those in our society, including academics and students, who are comfortable with flirting with violence and illicit action as justification for effecting change in society.

It is time for the private sector to better fund our students, to partner with the government and universities so that we can collectively generate the high-level skills and knowledge we require to move our economy forward.

It is time for noble leadership.


It is time for all political parties to put the future of the next generation ahead of their own selfish agendas.

It is time political parties refrained from inciting violence to deliberately destabilise the higher education sector for short-term political and electoral gain.

It is time for our active members of civil society to uphold our democracy and to make their voices heard for the right reasons.

Second, we can only move forward if we have the courage and political will to hold each other accountable for any unlawful activity that has the potential to undermine or imperil our higher education system. There must be a clear understanding that there will be consequences for violence and other illegal activities. Peaceful protest is a constitutional right, but what is often forgotten is that this right comes with responsibilities.

Finally, we have to develop long-term, affordable and sustainable solutions to the challenges that confront our higher education today, including that of transformation, affordable access and funding for universities.

In this regard, while we welcome the presidential commission's investigation into the funding of the sector, our universities should work with all sectors of society, including students and academic and professional and administrative staff, to apply our collective expertise and experience to present solutions and alternative models to the government for consideration.

Our higher education system is at a tipping point.

There have been many concessions since October last year. The government conceded a 0% increase in fees for 2016 and underwrote it.


It also made additional billions of rands available for underfunded and unfunded National Student Financial Aid Scheme students and to clear their historic debt.

In addition, universities made further concessions on the structuring of fee payments, upfront payments, insourcing and multiple other issues.

These concessions have come at a huge cost to the universities.

Yet we are continuously subjected to even more demands, and protesters have suggested that they do not care whether universities are bankrupted or burnt. They hold that if there is no free education for all, there will be no education at all.

This kind of irresponsible action is what could permanently destroy our universities. Are we collectively willing to allow this to happen?

Our country, our higher education system, our economy and our collective futures are on a knife-edge. It is time for all of us to stand up and be counted among those who are prepared to protect our future and the rights and freedoms for which we fought so hard. Let us defend and safeguard our higher education system.

Habib is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, and Mabizela is the vice-chancellor and principal of Rhodes University

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