Student protests

“Students are within their rights to call for free education… but the right to protest does not permit the use of violence”

Student protests violate the Freedom Charter says lawyer

Lawyer Mark Oppenheimer says it like it is: The behaviour of students in the #feesmustfall movement are a violation of the Freedom Charter

Student protests

“Students are within their rights to call for free education… but the right to protest does not permit the use of violence”

While students burn buses and loot shops, social media pundits are hurling abuse at Vice Chancellors and the police. The #feesmustfall movement has brought our universities to the brink of collapse and only a brave few have spoken out against their tactics.

Our Constitution grants “everyone the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.” This right affords us with the ability to make our voices heard and express displeasure with the status quo. Students are within their rights to call for free education. They can raise their placards high, write manifestos and engage with the powers that be to further their cause.

However, the right to protest does not permit the use of violence. When students launch rocks at the police, they invite sanction. When they burn down libraries, they rob future generations of the ability to learn. When they close down campuses, they jeopardise the livelihoods of those on the cusp of graduating. Their vile deeds will deprive hospitals and law clinics of fresh graduates, resulting in disaster for the sick and needy.

The #feesmustfall movement has made explicit use of race based rhetoric to gather momentum. Spray-painting “Fuck White People” on university property and calling for white students to be killed is divisive, hateful and racist.  There has been a tendency to turn a blind eye to these statements. Some commentators hold the mistaken belief that because of our history it is not possible to be racist towards white people.

The Freedom Charter serves as a welcome counterpoint. It boldly proclaims that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. The rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex. All national groups shall be protected by law against insults to their race and national pride.

The violent methods used by the students ought to be condemned from all corners. Those that sympathise with the cause of free education for all, should express their disdain for those who flout the rule of law and infringe on the freedoms of others. There is no contradiction in sharing a desired end, while rejecting an awful means.

When faced with hordes of hostile students, universities have bent over backwards to accommodate their demands. Universities have offered to join forces with the students and call on government for financial support, but #feesmustfall have petulantly refused these offers. Instead, they have held their peers to ransom by enforcing campus closures and demanding free decolonised education with immediate effect.

There are two issues that should give us pause. First, whether the roughly R70 billion that would be required to make free tertiary education a reality would be better spent on other social goods like housing and healthcare. Should government let more people die in unserviced hospital beds? Should the homeless be left out in the cold, while students learn about Marx, Fanon and Foucault for free?

On the issue of fees, the Freedom Charter states that “higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.”

This call for subsidies, instead of free education, places a limited duty on the state to assist students. There is an implicit assumption that the state has finite resources and trade-offs have to be made when deciding how taxpayer money should be spent.

Second, is a decolonised education desirable? This historic passage from the Freedom Charter suggests otherwise:

All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands. The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace.

Those who fought valiantly for a free South Africa recognised that ideas are meant to be shared widely and not shunned because of their origins. Rejecting the wisdom of past generations merely because their ideas emanated from Europe, America or Asia is foolish and parochial. Students should be slow to reject Gandhi’s thoughts on passive resistance or Mary Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the rights of women. If they disagree with an idea it should be because there is an issue with its content; not its source.

South African Universities stand on the precipice. If civil society does not act now to protect institutions of higher learning; there will be nothing left for future generations to inherit.

Author Mark Oppenheimer is a practicing advocate and member of the Johannesburg Bar.