Letter: Time to get tough on protesters

Universities in uproar

On Wednesday morning a small group of #feesmustfall protesters barricaded the Rhodes University library entrance with plastic benches, and blocked the entrances to the computer labs with benches and concrete blocks. At 9.30am there were about 150 students outside the library waiting to get in.

Apparently there was no presence of campus security or staff and the handful of #feesmustfall protesters merely put up the barricades at 8.30am and left the area. No one was guarding the benches which blocked the library and no one attempted to remove them.

Having a few disgruntled protesters barricading a library and ultimately shutting down an entire campus brings to mind the words “mutiny” and “treason” – taking over the captainship of the university and playing a part in subverting the economic future of the country. These protesters, who were very few in number compared to the previous #feesmustfall protests, successfully prevented the whole ship from moving forward while administration and security were nowhere to be seen.

The constitution upholds freedom of movement as a priority because blocking access to roads, libraries, lecture halls and computer labs involves coercion and intimidation, and is essentially saying, “Don’t go there or else!” Similarly, making use of barricading during a protest involves leverage and a threat which says, “Give us our terms or we will cause mayhem and shut down the institution”.

It is a cowardly and potentially violent way of doing things because others have the right to go where they want and the right to resist being cordoned off, which could cause conflict if people stand up for their rights.

This is why any staff member who publicly recommends barricading should be disciplined for incitement to breaking the law and students who are caught barricading facilities should be excluded from the university forthwith.

Citizens have a duty to uphold the law, which is why they are allowed to make citizens’ arrests when they see others breaking the law. Each student has the right to remove the benches, enter the library and get on with his or her work, but they sense a lack of will from administrators to back them up and they are afraid to act independently. In short, they are intimidated. The pervading fear that protests have created over the past few years is palpable, so much so that protesters merely have to put up barricades, walk away, and no one – security, administration and students – dares to go against them.

This clearly shows who has usurped the authority. It has become politically incorrect and taboo in South Africa to oppose protesters, even if they are disrupting lectures or blocking people’s right to freedom of movement.

This has gone so far that people end up putting the “rights” of the protesters (to disrupt and intimidate) before their own legitimate rights (freedom to go about their daily lives uninhibited and un-coerced). People feel sympathy towards protesters because they are seen to be the underdogs with something important to say.

In this case there is nothing new to say and nothing that protesting can do to improve the situation because it has reached a deadlock.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has given the terms of the financial arrangement and university administrators haven’t even had the time to get together and discuss what decision Rhodes will take. It seems as if the protesters’ plan was to hit the university with a protest and force an immediate decision.

There is confusion regarding what the protest is about and many of the protesters themselves don’t seem to know what it is about. Some are demanding a 0% increase across the board while others want a decrease in fees.

In the light of the university’s dire financial situation some of the #feesmustfall protesters won’t get what they want, no matter what the decision is. This is a recipe for infinite protesting, which is why the court interdict needs to be applied to protect the rights of the majority of students who have a right to feel safe and secure, and don’t want continual disruptions.

The interdict should have been used as soon as the initial blockading of the library and computer labs started. If the university administrators and campus security had been on the spot, removed the barricades and photographed the perpetrators, the whole process might have been nipped in the bud.

On Thursday the protest gathered momentum and police had to be called in. Police presence should be avoided at all costs because it gets students more worked up and gives them a concrete cause to become militant.

It is time for the government and university authorities to stand in agreement on students’ rights, rather than standing on the sidelines and watching the game. If they don’t get tough then some protesters, who seem to display a desire to destroy and disrupt rather than a hunger to learn, will take more courage and turn campuses upside down.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” – Edmund Burke

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