The events of the past week on South African university campuses have been nothing short of heart-breaking. We have watched with great sadness videos of racist violence against protestors at UP and UFS, and reports of the fire-bombing of the VC of UCT’s office and the burning of a bus with passengers on it at Wits. People have been injured and threatened with injury. Many have also been upset by acts of vandalism against university property, including the burning of paintings at UCT and broken windows at Wits. Without question, human life is more precious than property. The ASAWU Executive feels strongly that violence, against people as well as property, simply cannot be considered an acceptable or effective solution to the pressing issues of access, justice and transformation currently facing the higher education sector.
South Africa is better than this.
Recent events on university campuses have only reinforced that there is a simmering anger and dissatisfaction in South African society at large over a lack of delivery on key promises made in 1994. The anger that we have seen expressed from protesting parties is understandable given the trauma of Apartheid, and the ongoing challenges that continue to plague this country in the form of gender based violence and structural poverty. But we need to find better ways to address these challenges. Universities do play an important role in the development of our country. We need to ensure our universities are safe spaces to exchange ideas, to debate, and to disagree on these issues, and we need to ensure that the academic project continues so that students and their families can benefit from the educations they are getting. Peaceful protest action is often designed to interrupt the status quo, and draw attention to injustice through making the privileged uncomfortable. Resorting to violence in order to silence peaceful protest is unpardonable. At the same time, those who resort to violent forms of protest as a mode of challenging the status quo also need to recognise that their actions often serve to further polarise and marginalise.
What we need instead of more polarisation is a broad coalition between all members of campus communities, and a commitment to denouncing violence in all its forms. We call on academic staff to open up spaces within their learning environments to discuss concerns, problems and the challenges faced by many in terms of access and transformation, and to listen to their students. We call on university management to give space to students who feel compelled to draw attention to their experiences of racism, marginalisation and exclusion, rather than to criminalise and prosecute. We call on students to recognise the rights of others while they are fighting for their own. We have to, together, find new ways to effect the change that our campuses so desperately need. Finally, we implore that we treat each other with kindness, empathy and tolerance as there are a diversity of views that exist and that need to be heard. We do not have to agree about everything in order to respect one another’s right to be heard.