Student protest

2008-08-23 00:00

With the death of a student during a protest at Unisa’s Durban campus, several issues arise. There is some doubt as to whether the young man, an asthmatic, died of natural causes or if he was fatally affected by police tear gas. That raises the further question of whether the police, who also arrested 10 protesters on charges of public violence, used excessive force. On the other hand, reports suggest that the protest had become dangerously violent, with stones thrown, vehicles damaged, and three policemen injured. Peaceful protest is a democratic right; rioting is not.

Also needing clarification is the underlying cause of the protest. The students were apparently objecting to Unisa’s introduction of on-line registration procedures and study materials on CD, their complaint being that this disadvantages students who are not computer literate. Unisa, however, maintains that conventional registration procedures and hard-copy study materials are still available to those who need them. If that is so, it is difficult to comprehend the student grievance. From airline reservations to tax returns, on-line electronics have become the norm and a major distance-education university surely has to keep up?

It seems, then, that the root of the affair was a misunderstanding. If this was not an instance where a radical student group sought to exploit the situation for its own political ends, then Unisa has been guilty of failing to communicate its intentions clearly. Either way, the tragedy of a death underscores the need for all educational institutions and student organisations to reflect on their responsibilities.

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