Burn to be heard: The chilling cry rallying South African students – expert analysis

In a sign that violence is likely to escalate at campuses across South Africa, a sinister call to action is circulating around university student circles: “Burn to be heard.” Before pointing the finger of blame at student provocateurs, take a look at the reasons peaceful protestors often turn to violence, is the message from Jane Duncan, a respected academic and author at the University of the Witwatersrand. She outlines how violence begets violence and reflects on the way university administrations, through their security guards, introduced the theme of violence at a time when protests were peaceful. It is essential for the authorities to take peaceful demonstrators more seriously when they make demands, says Professor Duncan. That way violence can be prevented. She argues for less security, not more – though it is hard to see at this stage how the cycle of arson, stone-throwing, malicious damage to property and other criminal acts can be brought to an end without firm action from law-enforcers. – Jackie Cameron

By Jane Duncan*

Burn to be heard.” This chilling statement has been doing the rounds through word of mouth and social media on South African campuses in recent weeks.

The message has to be taken seriously. Buildings and vehicles at several universities have been burned since a new wave of protests kicked off in the middle of September 2016. The arsonists haven’t been identified yet, but government and university managements’ fingers are pointing at student protesters.

A Wits student is burned by a police flashbang grenade during protests. Pic by Daylin Paul #Fees2017 #FeesMustFall
A Wits student is burned by a police flashbang grenade during protests. Pic by Daylin Paul

Some students have also used disruptive tactics to shut their campuses down until their demands for free education are met.

Universities have responded by securitising their campus; seeking wide-ranging interdicts against students and deploying private security guards.

How have things come to this?

Protests that are sustained over a period of time are usually part of a cycle that unfolds in interaction with the authorities and other protesters. A cyclical analysis helps us to understand the chains of cause and effect leading to disruptive and even violent protests.

Social movement theorists Charles Tilly, Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani have written extensively about why protests turn violent. Della Porta argues that movements become radicalised by two factors: escalating policing and what she calls competitive escalation. This is when protesters compete for space with political adversaries and other protesting groups.

If the police and private security guards are too quick to use violence – which has often been the case with the #feesmustfall protests – these interactions socialise the protesters into violence. Their actions create what sociologist William Gamson has called “injustice frames” around the state, where the state comes to be seen as fundamentally unjust.

State repression creates solidarity among movement participants, who justify the need for violence as a form of self-defence. As Della Porta puts it, violence emerges from violence.

Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @africartoons
Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @africartoons

Disruptive versus violent

Unfortunately, in the public debate, disruptive and violent protests have often been conflated. But there is a distinction between disruptive and violent protests. Disruptive protests involve breaching established “order”, including peacefully. Violent protests involve attacks on people or appreciable damage to property.

The sad reality is that the authorities often ignore peaceful, non-disruptive protests. Outside the university context, civic organisations like Abahlali base Mjondolo have engaged in road blockades because their more conventional protests were ignored.

What students have deduced from this is that unless the “normal” functioning of an unequal educational system is disrupted, then it is unlikely to change.

Under the conditions prevailing at universities at the moment, disruptive protests should receive constitutional protection. This protection is supported by legislation.

The Regulation of Gatherings Act allows protests to be prohibited only if they cause serious disruption. Even then, the act states that municipalities and the police must consult with protesters before dispersing them.

What this means in the current context is that student sit-ins and their efforts to get others to join should be considered protected conduct, providing they seek to persuade rather than coerce those around them.

That is not how protests are being treated at South Africa’s universities. Ill-trained private security guards have been deployed on many campuses.

In addition several universities have limited protest rights through wide-ranging interdicts that prohibit all disruption. Interdicts are blunt instruments that prohibit particular actions on a blanket basis. This is problematic. They act as a form of prior restraint on expressive acts.

Control and competition

Other factors are at play too.

Actors within movements also compete with one another for influence. This happens particularly if a movement has won major gains, which was the case with #feesmustfall groups in 2015.

Recent protests suggest that sections of the student movement are competing with one another to “claim” any victories. Added to this has been the fact that major national political parties appear to be more active in trying to exert control over “their” student formations. Some student representatives have been warned not to discuss the governing African National Congress’ political leadership issues on campus.

Such behaviour erodes cross-party collaboration based on shared interests and common demands. It diminishes democratic decision making and non-sectarian approaches to movement-building. The #feesmustfall movement appears to have fallen victim to this affliction.

Sociologists have argued that political violence by protesters is rarely ever adopted overnight or consciously. Rather, in the early stages of the protest cycle, such violence is generally unplanned, small in scale and limited in scope. It often occurs as a spontaneous reaction to an escalation of force by the police or a more general closure of democratic space.

Many protesters are frightened off by the escalating violence, but small groups begin to specialise in tactics that do not rely on mass support – such as more organised acts of violence. This splits the movement even further as many do not agree with this shift. Most significantly, these tactical decisions shift the struggle onto a terrain that is dominated overwhelmingly by the state and its repressive apparatus.

This cycle is now manifesting itself on several South African campuses. Its emergence makes the official narrative – last year, the student movement was noble, but this year it has lost its legitimacy and descended into violence – ring hollow.

This narrative fails to take into account how official overreaction to 2015’s largely peaceful protests, and continued overreaction this year, has escalated and radicalised the protests. From early on, universities responded to the protests by pursuing securitised approaches to them. Now they are reaping the whirlwind.

At the same time, movement actors need to focus on those demands, strategies and tactics that build mass movements, and reject those that don’t. Regressive elements promoting racism, sexism, homophobia and violence need to be called out.

It is the easier route for universities to say and do “security” in response to growing campus unrest. But it is also the more simplistic road. There is enough scholarship to show that this road leads nowhere. University actors must do more to break with this self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Jane Duncan Professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television, University of Johannesburg. She is affiliated with the Right 2 Know Campaign and the Media Policy and Democracy Project. Jane Duncan’s new book, Protest Nation: the Right to Protest in South Africa has just been released by UKZN Press. This article first appeared at The Conversation.

Student Protests Threaten S. African Universities With Ruin

by Arabile Gumede and Mike Cohen

(Bloomberg) — Police in patrol cars slowly cruise around the University of the Witwatersrand’s eerily quiet campus in Johannesburg as a handful of students scurry to the library to prepare for year-end examinations they may not be able to take.

Classes at the institution of more than 33,000 students, known as Wits, and several others across South Africa were suspended this month after protesters demanding free education clashed with police officers firing stun grenades and rubber bullets. The demonstrations erupted after the government announced that universities will determine their own tuition rates for 2017, with increases capped at 8 percent, while the state will raise subsidies for poorer students.

With their finances already stretched by the government’s decision to limit tuition costs this year after student riots in 2015, the universities say they may not be able to continue operating and the entire higher education system is at risk of grinding to a halt. That would spell disaster for an economy already contending with skills shortages and a 27 percent unemployment rate.

Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @ricoschacherl
Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @ricoschacherl

“We are very anxious,” Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa, a representative body, said by phone by Pretoria, the capital. “There is no possibility as far as I can tell that the state will find the money to meet the no-fee demand. The alternative is that universities simply close down and say: ‘We’ll open again in January’.”

Studies Threatened

If classes don’t resume soon, the University of Cape Town, the country’s oldest and top-ranked tertiary learning institution, may be unable to complete its academic program this year and students would then have to finish their courses in 2017, leaving no room for new students, according to the university’s vice chancellor, Max Price.

“This is a national crisis, not just in higher education,” Price told reporters on Wednesday. “It affects the economy more generally, it affects the reputation of the country.”

Other universities caught up in the turmoil include Rhodes University and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the south of the country, the University of Limpopo in the north, and the University of Pretoria in the capital.

Read also: Matthew Lester: #feesmustfall – where is the private sector?

Wits held a mobile phone poll on Thursday asking students whether classes should resume next week, the university said on its Twitter page. The results will be announced after being verified by an audit company.

South Africa currently spends about 5.3 percent of its national budget on post-school education and training, with 223.9 billion rand ($16.4 billion) allocated for the three years through March 2019. That compares to 6.7 percent for the police services. Universities get about half of their funding from the government and the rest from fees and grants. The state plans to subsidize tuition for students from homes with annual incomes of up to 600,000 rand.

Education Challenges

“We need to ensure that those who can afford to pay must pay,” Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande told reporters in Pretoria on Sept. 19. “Starving our universities and colleges is not the way to go. Any funding that government mobilizes to support the pressing challenges in higher education, it would need to re-prioritize from other programs.”

The announcement sparked off a wave of protests at universities across the country that Nzimande estimated this week had resulted in damage worth more than 600 million rand. President Jacob Zuma instructed his security ministers to clamp down on the violence, Jeff Radebe, a minister in the presidency, told reporters Thursday.

Opposing Violence

While Hulisani Tala, a 20-year-old construction studies student at Wits, said he didn’t agree with the violence, he supports the campaign for free education. Tuition ranges from 29,620 rand to 58,580 rand a year at the university.

“The fees are very high,” Tala said in an interview. “There must be a sacrifice from the government.”

About 14 of South Africa’s 26 public universities are already technically insolvent, and the longer the crisis goes on, the worse it will get, said Gerald Ouma, the director for institutional planning at the University of Pretoria.

“When you’ve got prolonged instability, it destroys the higher education system,” Ouma said by phone. “The top scholars leave the system, parents who can afford to take their children out of the public university system take them out and it becomes very difficult to rebuild.”

The government needs to show it’s acting in good faith by freezing fees this year as a first step toward providing free higher education, said Mandlakazi Zilwa, a 20-year-old film and television student at Wits.

“We need to walk away with something,” he said. “The more that they don’t respond to our demands, the longer the strike is prolonged. We all want to graduate. But if we are not saying something together as a collective of students then the government’s going to find no reason why they should respond. I feel like the government is not trying to bridge the gap.”