Former student leaders of Wits University, as well as members of the clergy and civil society organisations, have called for greater compassion for Fees Must Fall student activist Kanya Cekeshe, currently being held in Leeuwkop Prison in Johannesburg.
Twenty-seven different organisations and individuals drafted a statement on the matter - including Thuli Madonsela, Firoz Cachalia, Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, Chris Ngcobo, Kenneth Creamer, Ebrahim Fakir, as well as the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), Corruption Watch and Equal Education.
Cekeshe was denied bail following his arrest in 2017 for public violence and malicious damage to property, and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison.
While his conviction was being appealed, he was admitted to hospital due to mental health problems last week, News24 reported. He has since been discharged.
"Kanya has already served two years in prison. We believe that Kanya's sentence is unfair and unjust given the context of heightened tension and protest in which his actions occurred. Greater leniency ought to have been applied in the granting of bail, conviction and sentencing," the group said in their statement.
"As activists and former student leaders, many of us have participated in protests and pickets and therefore we understand that, despite efforts to maintain the discipline of peaceful protest, emotions at times run high and matters get out of hand.
"When this happens, we would ask for greater compassion, empathy and understanding of the contexts in which protest actions occur."
They added that Cekeshe should not have to spend more time behind bars, calling on the justice system to consider rehabilitation outside of prison, including community service, correctional supervision or a suspended prison sentence.
"We believe that such an approach was adopted in many instances of student activism in the Western Cape, but was not considered in Kanya’s case."
They said that, while the Fees Must Fall protests created many benefits for universities, including fee-free higher education, "there have been serious negative consequences for the lives of many #FeesMustFall activists".
Despite their belief in peaceful, non-violent protest, the group said Cekeshe should not suffer for his role in the protests.
"We call for a deeper understanding of the context in which his actions occurred and the expedition (sic) of legal processes to be undertaken to secure his release so that he can continue with his studies, regain his mental health and may be allowed to take his place in making a positive contribution to the building of a better South Africa. We stand in solidarity with Kanya Cekeshe."
The protests, which gripped South African universities from 2015, were the biggest demonstrations since the end of apartheid, according to the group, and displayed the power of the youth striving for social justice.
"Our history as South Africans has countless examples of young people taking a stand in the name of freedom, equality and dignity. In South Africa and globally, the youth are often seen as the mirrors of societies' souls (sic)," the group said.