Solving SA’s student protests must start with meaningful engagement

SA’s political elite have lost the moral authority to solve social problems, but our past can provide solutions.

Violent student protests continue to rock tertiary institutions in South Africa. The #FeesMustFall protests have left the nation divided and the authorities seemingly paralysed to deal with the demands.

These protests have led to injury and even the death of a cleaner following the release of a fire extinguisher at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Classes have been disrupted and the Tertiary Education and Training Minister, Blade Nzimande, estimated that the cost of damages by end of September reached the R600 million mark. South Africans are asking where will this all end; but for now, no concrete solution seems to be in sight.

The Higher Education Multi-Stakeholder imbizo and an address by President Jacob Zuma held on 3 October illustrate exactly how unequal the power relationships are between protestors and the state. In his recent Daily Maverick article, Greg Nicolson concludes that the imbizo ‘exposed the state’s arrogance, the minister’s and president’s refusal to listen to different arguments, and the deep divisions currently playing out on campuses. There was little attempt, it seemed, to take students’ points seriously, which is why we will probably see continuing confrontations.’

A new approach is needed if we want to stop protests turning violent

Protestors are told over and over again that the problem lies with them; that they are the ‘hooligans and criminals’. While all forms of violence should be condemned, a new approach is needed if we want to stop protests from turning violent. This first step will require a more empathetic view of protestors’ grievances.

Student and community protestors are often spoken to, but their messages are seldom heard. They are patronised and not afforded a respectful and equal platform to air their grievances with the objective of achieving a resolution. Too often, protestors are regarded as a disorderly or deviant group – rather than an equal role-player with valuable insights and legitimate grievances.

An increasing number of people in South Africa have started to perceive the government as uncaring, unaccountable and lacking transparency. These perceptions occur because of the way that senior politicians often tend to conduct themselves. Time and time again, the public have heard members of the political elite using threats rather than rational arguments against those whom they see as bothersome.

Due to high levels of poverty and unemployment, most South Africans do not have sufficient bargaining power against state authority. Millions of people rely on social grants to somewhat ease the situation. But without a growing economy and job market, many remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.

However, rather than taking the blame for poor governance – which is the key reason for the failure to create jobs, the political elite tend to blame the victims of their own incompetence. Recently, for example, the Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC), Gwede Mantashe said: ‘What we have done wrong is that we created a society that is very passive, that is waiting for delivery. The demand is free this, free that.’

Students are patronised and not afforded a respectful and equal platform

Such sentiments create growing mistrust of the government. This has opened a space and provided legitimacy for those who would rather use violence to force the government to respond to their grievances. As a relatively privileged group, it is unsurprising that tertiary students are at the forefront of current protests against the state. They are well organised and less dependent on the state in the long term, and they have a better chance of escaping the cycles of poverty in which most South Africans are trapped.

Last year’s large-scale student protests resulted in Zuma quickly giving into the demands of the #FeesMustFall movement. However, it set a precedent that it is possible to force the government to concede to demands without negotiation. That is why unlike the relatively disciplined protests in 2015, we are now increasingly seeing violence in the form of the destruction of property, the intimidation of those who hold different views and death threats.

The police are caught in the middle, since they have to balance the rights of protesting students and those who seek to continue learning. With the use of violence by some students, the police are increasingly being forced to act. Given the pressing need to up-skill and improve public order policing in South Africa, this presents a dangerous situation. Indeed, acting National Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane knows that relying on the police is not a sustainable solution. It is likely to lead to further violence in protests and is redirecting resources away from the urgent need to tackle increasing levels of violent crime.

The only sustainable solution is timely, meaningful and respectful engagement, where all parties to the dispute recognise each other as equal and necessary in achieving a solution. This will not be found in high-level presidential imbizos or ministerial task teams.

Mistrust of the government has provided legitimacy for those who would rather use violence

We should learn from our past, especially the final days of apartheid – when political violence presented a real threat to the future of South Africa. At that time, a lack of trust in the apartheid state, who was party to the violence, required for neutral forums to be established and led by independent, trained mediators.

This resulted in a network of some 15 000 trained peace monitors from all sectors of society following the 1991 National Peace Accord. The National Peace Secretariat was established, along with 11 regional and more than 200 local peace committees, to promote dialogue and reduce violence across the country.

This system was not perfect, but it did lead to greater political tolerance and prevented what could’ve been a much higher level of violence.

Many forms of mediation are available today, both in the private sector and in civil society. Indeed, we have already seen the Law Society of South Africa and clergy offering their services as mediators to end the impasse that exists in relation to tertiary education. The initiative by Wits to hold a General Assembly may yield results for that institution, but the problem is one that requires a national response.

What South Africa needs now is for all parties to come together like in 1991, and establish a broad-based accord to chart a way forward for the future of tertiary education in the country. This can only be negotiated by neutral and trained mediators who treat all parties as equals. Those who persist in using violence can then be isolated, while those who have a genuine desire for a fairer and more accessible tertiary education sector can get on with the business of charting a practical plan forward.

Lizette Lancaster, Manager: Crime and Justice Information Hub, ISS Pretoria; and Mouctar Diallo, PhD candidate, Wits School of Governance

For more on this topic of public and collective violence from the author, read At the heart of discontent: measuring public violence in South Africa.

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