South Africa has a long-standing history of student protests that dates back to the apartheid era with anti-apartheid marches predating democracy. However, even after attaining democracy in 1994, students had their own struggles for which they chose to express through protests. In recent years, student protests actions have escalated in numbers and magnitude. At universities and universities of technology, student protests are organized and led by the student organization, the South African Students’ Congress (SASCO). However, with the increase in student protests is the increase in police brutality towards protesting students. Protesters have often been met with heavily armed police resulting to tragic aftermaths.
Students across the country have had similar demands for protesting including financial support, quality accommodation and transport from residences to campuses, low accommodation, and tuition fees as well as for the elimination of academic exclusion of students in tertiary institutions. However, the demand for more financial support from National Student Financial Aids Scheme (NSFAS) has persistently surfaced as the main demand. NSFAS is a government student loan and bursary scheme that serves students from all public higher learning institutions throughout South Africa. Other demands, especially at tertiary institutions have been against slow transformation processes, academic policies and language policy.
South Africa has experienced several historical student protests that have sparked national debates. For instance, the “Rhodes Must Fall” protest movement that initially directed at the removal of a statue that honors Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), which later ignited a debate on race relations, access and funding at the university. The protest campaigning for statue removal that began on 9 March 2015 at UCT received global support that led to a wider movement of “decolonizing” education in South Africa. A month later, on 9 April 2015 the UCT Council voted to remove the statue.
The #FeesMustFall movement that began in mid-October 2015 is another historic student-led protest that resulted into a nationwide shutdown of public universities in South Africa. The movement had two goals; stop the increase in student fees and to increase government funding of universities. The movement unleashed a social and political power to challenge the established political order, which brought university managements to its heels, changing social fabrics of universities and parts of the society. The led to transformations in universities including reconsideration of their foundational values, ideological bases and policies with the power of direct action to getting radical results being reaffirmed. The movement changed significantly the university, government and youth relationship.
The powerful Fees Must Fall movement has resurfaced despite the threat of COVID-19 pandemic, with students continuing to call upon the government for free, quality and decolonized education for all. While it never quite left, several sporadic small-protests are observed since January 2021. The resurgence came after NSFAS’s announcement that it had no funds to provide first-time university students for 2021. NSFAS received close to 800 000 funding applications for this year alone. On the 15 March 2021, students from universities all over the country returned to the streets for a nationwide shutdown. The protest is mainly against financial exclusion especially of black students, demanding free education for all. Also students were protesting against police brutality experienced during peaceful demonstrations at the University of Witwatersrand that resulted in death of a passerby by a police rubber bullet.
Student Violence vis-a-vis Police Brutality in Protests
Student protests have mostly turned violent leading to injuries, destruction of properties, arrest, and threatened the safety of staff and student. The students’ mass participation in protests such as the #FeesMustFall was their belief in their power as a collective. Through protests students as a collective were able to do things that individually they could not. For instance, students were able to prevent the then vice-chancellor of Wits University, Adam Habib from leaving the auditorium in which they were gathered until he called a meeting of the University’s Council. Similarly, in January 2016, students threatened to disrupt local government elections in the country unless their demands are met. In addition to acknowledging the power that is in the collective, student protesters also perceive violence as an agency to push forth their agenda and resolve the conflicts. During the #RhodesMustFall movement, students made use of occupational, civil disobedience, and violence, with actions including occupying UCT offices, throwing human feces at the Rhodes statue, burning arts, vehicles, and buildings.
Despite unleashing institutional and nationwide debates on some chronic vices in the country, the inherent violence is student protests have been met with brutal police forces. A number of Student Representative Council (SRC) members and students have been arrested over the years and faced disciplinary and criminal charges. For instance, a total of 567 people in Cape Town and over 100 student protesters in KwaZulu Natal province were arrested for public violence and malicious damage to property in connection to the FeeMustFall movement. In 2016, a total of 265 cases of charges that included violence, intimidation, and malicious damage to property were reported. While the use of force by the police is deemed a necessary agency to prevent, investigate and combat crime to maintain stability, to some extent it has also propelled student violence. For instance, the torching of the famous University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) Law library after alleged accusations of student rape by police during the #FeeMustFall movement. In this year’s FeeMustFall protest, the police response has been the harshest with random arrests and heavy presence on campus. Amid the protests, in an attempt to disperse student protesters, a 35-year-old bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba, was shot dead by a police rubber bullet in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. The police minister has conceded to the lack of logic in using such force and as a result, four police officers have been arrested in connection with Ntumba’s death. Despite these efforts, South Africa is wary that yet another life lost due to the brutal police force.
The complexity of student protests and police brutality calls for a rethinking of the approaches in dealing with the negative consequences. Arising from the protests is a culture characterized by mistrust and tension among stakeholders including students, government, and university management. Violence overtones erode the overall purpose of protesting by losing support and eventual abandonment. It also defeats the intention to safeguard peace and security amid a protest. Protests are multifaceted and thus stakeholders must view it in its holistic nature to be able to prescribe sustainable measures to address conflicts therein. Arguably, it is not sufficient to just blame police brutality but also raise awareness and take responsibility for acts of violence inherent in protests. Furthermore, each stakeholder must review systemic governance threats, for instance, racism to minimize if not eliminate the possibility of a resurgence of such movements. Also, to avert a recurrence of negative consequences of student protests such as the destruction of property and the development of toxic and adversarial relationships amongst different stakeholders, South African higher education should adopt a collaborative approach to conflict resolution. The approaches should be framed differently such that they avoid the use of individually preferred agencies to achieve outright victory over a stakeholder, but now focus on a collaborative win-win situation for stakeholders involved. For instance, the agency for students has been violent while the force has been the common agency for police.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.