The right to protest is not a right to damage property

2014-10-05 15:00

It has almost been accepted as a validation of strength for any student protest action at institutions of higher learning that damaging property must form part of ­exercising this democratic right.

This practice from the most enlightened section of our youth is extremely distasteful and abhorrent. But more disturbing is the degenerate quality of leadership at this level from those elected to student bodies to provide leadership.

In any course of action, there will be spoilers and agents provocateurs who will resort to all manner of sordid acts. These diversions are as old as protest action itself. But the task of the leadership is in ensuring that before the strike action even begins, a strong message is sent to students, and marshals are appointed to control crowds. Daily briefings by leaders and house committees are maintained.

Bona fide leaders are those who command authority to their constituency, lead by principle and are always willing to be ­unpopular. A leader who recoils when difficult times arise is not a leader.

During my student life, I don’t remember being part of a strike that resulted in damage to property. We always knew our quarrel with management must not translate into anything other than the issues at hand, using democratic principles as guidance. Winning the moral high ground was always primary. We knew that the university belonged to us and the future generations of students, and therefore must be protected.

The recent strikes at institutions of higher learning across the country are a startling exposure of the diminished quality of leadership, where control is lost from all directions.

But careful observation reveals that student representative councils fail to lead students during strikes, resulting in them being overpowered by the most populist of frontrunners during strikes.

It could also be because student body elections take place during the second semester and various student organisations use the moment to project themselves as more militant than others to prop up their electoral chances.

My worry is the moral acceptability of the impunity with which these acts of criminality are carried out.

More is expected from students at a supposed level of intellectual clarity. No amount of anger, desperation and stress can justify such acts. Period.

Institutions of higher learning are the property of this country and its future generations. Young leaders in tertiary institutions must be responsible.

As we speak, some students at the University of Limpopo’s Medunsa campus are now facing criminal charges, and the same will happen very soon at the Tshwane ­University of ­Technology.

These students’ futures will be tainted by criminal records, something they should bear in mind if they aspire to enter the job market after university.

Nkwanyana is the spokesperson for the higher education minister

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