Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, who was noticeably absent from the sites of student protest over the past months, has surfaced. Blinking his eyes in Rip Van Winkle befuddlement, true. But mercifully surfaced.
The police, he reassures, will in future take “decisive action” over violent protests. Lest we be misled into thinking that the African National Congress government has miraculously grown a law-and-order backbone, he was quick to qualify his statement.
Such decisive action would only follow once the police had “assessed the degree of violence”. In other words, assorted acts of violence and lawlessness — grievous bodily harm to bystanders, the torching of an art collection and vehicles, the gutting of the University of Cape Town’s vice-chancellor’s office, and the burning down of North West University’s administration offices and science block — apparently do not automatically demand a firm response from the SA Police Service.
For a former academic, Nzimande’s thinking seems decidedly sloppy. Firstly, his criteria for action are puerile. Secondly, it is outrageous that the higher education and training minister appears to be deciding on behalf of the SAPS when they might or might not act.
During a visit to the Wits university library this week, Nzimande explained himself: “We came to this library just to share why it is dangerous to destroy university property … we saw some of the things that are housed here and one of them is the court records of the Rivonia trial, including even the draft by president Mandela when he was preparing his famous speech in the Rivonia trial,” Nzimande said.
“These are the things that are in danger of being destroyed. We need to protect these records.”
In other words, to trigger the police protection that the Constitution promises every citizen as an inalienable right, you have to fit into the ANC’s picture of what it deems important and worthy of preservation. It’s about expediency, an ANC desire not to alienate an important political constituency, that of young voters, who can do pretty much what they like as long as they don’t start mauling the hand that pets them.
It is not only Nzimande who is at fault. The university vice-chancellors who have suddenly issued a joint statement noting “with grave concern the nature and form of disruptive protests and escalating violence” have for months been leaning over backwards to appease, as protest steadily deteriorated into violence.
Their statement follows them belatedly discerning a sinister nexus to the thuggery. “It appears that these violent acts are being planned and committed by groups and individuals with a singular intent – to deliberately disrupt and destabilise our universities through intimidation and violence.”
The department of higher education (DHET) and training says that the protests show the existence of fringe elements seeking to destabilise campuses “as part of a perverse political agenda … these fringe elements seem hell bent to exploit every problem as part of seeking to hijack legitimate student concerns for their narrow ends,” calling on “all progressive forces” to distance themselves from intimidation, violence and vandalism.
The likely cause of Nzimande, DHET and the vice-chancellors scrambling about is the growing role of the Economic Freedom Fighters. From the very beginning of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, the EFF showed that they were determined to hijack the protests. And since then, its leader Julius Malema and his EFF cohorts have been assiduously using social media to encourage disruption, becoming particularly brazen of late.
Tweets from the EFF’s official account have allegedly incited violence, intolerance and destruction at North-West University. And to add fuel to fire, so to speak, on the EFF’s official Facebook page, the EFF’s Pretoria leader posted instructions on how to make petrol bombs.
As is its wont, the EFF threatened to “go to war” against the University of Pretoria and stated that “people will stand up and fight”. It also warned on social media that “no untransformed university” would be allowed to open its doors.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has said it will lay charges against the EFF for inciting violence on the campuses. This should, of course, not be necessary.
If the police were doing their jobs properly, they would not have to wait for the DA to lay charges or for Nzimande to give them the nod. They would long ago have acted swiftly and decisively, using not only their officers on the ground to intervene when crimes were being committed, but their criminal intelligence division to pre-empt the spread of chaos.
The danger to SA is the attenuation of public order by a police force that marches to the cadence of ANC politicians. Perhaps even more dangerous is the EFF, a political party that hides its fascist tendencies behind the fig leaf of parliamentary democracy with the one hand, while brandishing a Molotov cocktail in the other.
It’s time for the ANC and the SAPS to gird their loins and act.
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