Indefensible violence

2015-09-23 10:41
Police watch the gates to a residence at the Pietermaritzburg UKZN campus. (Chelsea Pieterse, The Witness)

Police watch the gates to a residence at the Pietermaritzburg UKZN campus. (Chelsea Pieterse, The Witness)

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THE media have reported that damage estimated at R30 million has been caused by University of KwaZulu-Natal students, many of whom were apparently inebriated at the time (Weekend Witness, September 19).

These protests occurred on four of the university’s campuses, having started last Sunday night on the Westville campus and then spreading to Howard College, Pietermaritzburg and Edgewood Teacher Training Centre. Whatever the grievances may be, and there are indeed legitimate ones, violence can never be condoned or tolerated. The law must take its course and the students involved must be prosecuted.

Our Constitution, with its entrenched Bill of Rights, provides for a system of multiparty democracy. The Constitution provides for, inter alia, the rights of assembly, protest, freedom of expression and political rights involving belonging to and promoting political parties and causes. However, these rights are not absolute and are subject to reasonable limitation. Individuals and political parties, in advancing political causes and agendas, are bound to act in accordance with the law and the Constitution.

Political protest by its very nature must be robust to be effective. However, protest that is violent is unlawful and unconstitutional, and cannot be justified in a democratic state. It must be condemned and dealt with in accordance with our criminal law. People are never entitled, however aggrieved, to take the law into their own hands and cause mayhem and destruction, which threatens the foundations of a democratic state and the lives and property of both the public and private people.

Democracy provides for liberty and not licence to act in a manner that threatens the rights of law-abiding citizens and militates against the prospects of an intelligent and robust discourse on the cause of student grievances. Such violent protest is indefensible.

It was reported that the protest is the result of UKZN proposing to increase tuition fees and further burden poor students. The students are also unhappy about how the National Student Financial Aid Fund (NSFAS) is administered and about fee increases for student accommodation.

It must be conceded that there is a very real problem about funding. The NSFAS is, as it operates at present, unable or unwilling to provide more funding and as a consequence, UKZN and other universities are trying desperately to obtain funds from the students or their parents. However, most of the latter are indigent or so poor that they cannot pay. This situation has been compounded in that the lines of communication appear to have broken down between the university management and the students to the extent that students apparently started protesting violently at UKZN before they had formulated a petition.

Such a situation is open to manifest abuse since unscrupulous, criminal and irresponsible elements can exploit the tense situation to further their own nefarious motives. This is also apparently what occurred at UKZN.

All is not gloom and doom. As funding is the key factor in the cause of the protests, the Sunday Times (September 20) reports that the commercial banks and the Public Investment Corporation (Pic), in effect the Government Employees Pension Fund, could play a significant role in assisting to finance university students who are unable to obtain money from the NSFAS. It is a great pity that this initiative only became known in the wake of the violent protest that has just occurred.

Furthermore, it is regrettable that the ANC government has been so lethargic in addressing this urgent problem which Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, described as “one of the single most biggest crises facing the country”. He further declared that “we are not going to resolve protests and violence unless we have the capacity to address the student finance issue”.

The government has a seminal role to play in this regard, as the NSFAS is underfunded and fraught with maladministration and corruption. In this regard, the government should increase funding and ensure that the NSFAS operates efficiently and without corruption.

Concerted action is required by all the role players involved. The lines of communication must be opened and stay open between university management and student leadership on the campuses to address the issue of funding and other issues. Commercial banks and the Pic must get involved in a beneficial manner and this must be facilitated by the government. Failure to do this could lead to further violent protests, which could lead to lives being lost in the process of violent confrontation.

South Africans, having crafted an exemplary Constitution, need to take action to ensure that serious disputes do not lead to violent protest and such disputes should be expeditiously addressed in a reasonable and just manner. The government and all authority must be rendered accountable in a robust but responsible manner. Violence cannot be condoned as a method of accountability. The cost of liberty is eternal vigilance.

• George Devenish is professor emeritus at UKZN and one of the jurists who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993

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