One of the leading professors at the University of Johannesburg said the FeesMustFall protests around South Africa were peaceful but the way the government and university management dealt with the grievances of the protesters intensified the violence.
Jane Duncan is a professor at the Department of Journalism, Film, and Television at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and has widely written about freedom of expression, the right to protest and media policy. Her latest book titled ‘The Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa’ challenges the way South Africans think about violence during protests and the increased militarization of the state.
How did UJ suppress the protests?
The University of Johannesburg did not recognise the Fees protests saying that before students would be able to stage a gathering they should apply to the Director of Student Life and Governance at least five days earlier.
However, Duncan says, “in terms of the Gathering Act that applies to the broader world outside campuses, you don’t ask permission but you notify the authorities of your intention to stage a protest. So, they want to try and portray a process of notification as a process of seeking permission. You can’t exercise your basic right if you ask permission to exercise that right.”
“The freedom of expression clause in the Constitution defends the ability to raise grievances about an individual or anything, so they should not be banning protests against an individual. What if people want to stage a protest about the Vice Chancellor or about someone in the university management who’s been abusive? They should have a right to do so,” she added.
Court interdicts also lead to brutality and violence
Recently many universities in South Africa have inaugurated interdicts which prevent disruptions and pre-empt the gathering of students within the universities’ premises.
“The Regulations of the Gathering Act says disruptive protests should be legally and constitutionally protected if they do not amount to serious disruptions,” Duncan said. “These wide-ranging interdicts lead to over policing [ such as] the private security and the police [being allowed] onto campus to enforce the interdicts.”
She added that “it is inevitable that the broad-ranging interdicts lead to over policing and when you have over policing then you have massive, negative student reactions. That’s when you have this kind of escalation of protests and violence.
“They are trained to use maximum force”
“These are the guys who shoot and ask questions later. They have violently put down protests in different parts of the country,” Duncan said as referring to one of the South African Police Service paramilitary units, the Technical Response Team (TRT) which is capable of “using maximum force, rather than minimum force”.
“The TRT is one of the most controversial policing units in the country and it was one of the two units responsible for the Marikana Massacre together with the National Intervention Unit. They haven’t been held accountable for their role in the Marikana Massacre, so it is particularly worrisome for me,” said Duncan.
Apart from the TRT, there is another controversial and often violent private security outsourced by UJ to protect the infrastructure. They are well known as the “bouncers”, they are tough and look more akin to bodybuilders who eat steroids. Once they are excessively mocked by the students during protests they become exasperated and “act accordingly” as one bouncer said.
At times, they would perform a reciprocal role, if they are stoned by the students, they would stone them back which is one of the reasons that led to major disruptions to some universities. The ‘bouncers’ say their job is to protect the university’s buildings.
Recently, an organisation called the Right2Know Campaign which Duncan is also part of held a seminar in Cape Town to discuss issues related to the protests.
“A representative of the private security board was called to explain the role of private security in policing protests on campuses, and he basically admitted that they don’t have the training to police protests on campuses,” said Prof Duncan without providing the details of the representative who was summoned.
Is UJ a dictatorship or is there “a fear of exposure”?
If you over regulate protests in a way that amounts to censorship, then you are going to aggravate them – Duncan
“UJ Management has a fear of exposure, the University management is very obsessed with its brand and thinks that it is justifiable to protect its brand…through censorship,” Duncan explained why the media and citizen journalists were often prohibited from filming the UJ fees protests.
“I don’t think they (UJ) sufficiently appreciate the role of journalists in democracy, including the role of citizen journalists. So students are on the ground and they are exposing abuses of power by members of the public and private police, and they should be welcoming that, in fact, not hiding it,” she added.
When the TRT arrived at UJ-Auckland Park Kingsway Campus, she too was denied the ability to expose that there was a TRT presence on campus. She says the TRT is “one of the most violent paramilitary units in the SAPS, and they have conducted a range of terror in different parts of Mpumalanga.”
The people that are to be blamed according to Duncan are “the Minister of Higher Education, [ Blade Nzimande] and the Minister of Finance [ Pravin Gordhan] because they should have attended to the fact that higher education is unaffordable with the necessary level of urgency.”