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University protests ‘unconstitutional’ and infringe on student liberties

By Geoff Embling

How is it possible for a group of protesters, supported by the Student Representative Council and Black Student Movement, to hold the whole of Rhodes University hostage and possibly breach the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights at the same time? Why should a university of over 7 000 students shut down just because some students demand lower fees and a lower minimum initial payment? Similar scenarios are occurring at universities around the country.

Rhodes Student Representative Council president Zikisa Maqubela commented that: “The protest is about the minimum initial payment; students are saying it’s too high and they are shutting down the university. We’ve barricaded all entrances to the university so nobody is getting in.”

At the heart of this protest is the government’s failure to provide adequate funding to South African universities. Universities haven’t been supported by the department of higher education.

And the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which should be funding poor university students, is short of R51 billion. So if students want real change they should protest outside Blade Nzimande’s office. They have no right to disrupt thousands of others who are starting exams in less than two weeks, many of whom are struggling academically and desperately need this time to learn and study in peace.

The Daily Dispatch reported that about 100 students, some of who carried sticks, turned people away from Rhodes campus on Monday morning. Section 17 of the Constitution states that: “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.” Burning tyres and barricading the entrances and exits of Rhodes to prevent lectures from taking place is not peaceful. Carrying sticks is not “unarmed”, and turning people away could constitute intimidation.

Section 29 provides the “Right to Education”. Just because Nzimande and the government are blocking students’ rights to education does not give students the right to block other students’ rights to education. Section 12 protects “Freedom and Security of the Person” and Section 21 provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”. People trying to enter the cordoned off roads and being turned away by protestors carrying sticks does not amount to “security of the person” or freedom of movement.

Putting out fires, a traffic official helps  extinguish a burning barricade at an exit on UCT upper campus on October 20 2015. Photo by David Harrison
Putting out fires, a traffic official helps extinguish a burning barricade at an exit on UCT upper campus, October 20 2015. Photo by David Harrison

Freedom of movement is important and can be found in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, part of its use being to prevent streets, roads and right-of-ways from being blocked or restricted. There is a duty for a private person not to impede the free movement of another. Where a person prevents another from freely entering or leaving an area, either by physically imprisoning them or by threats, that person may be subject to a lawsuit and criminal charges.

Students and the public are being denied access to public thoroughfares, such as Prince Alfred Street and South Street in Grahamstown, and prevented from accessing a number of facilities for which they have paid money to attend ie lectures, tutorials, the gym and the swimming pool. They are therefore having their liberty infringed upon. Students who live in town have spent money on pre-paid meals in the Oppidan dining hall (which is shut), and now the Oppidan students must pay for meals they don’t eat or the university must pay for wasted food.

Either way the protestors are causing a financial loss to another party. And what about all the students who have no access to computers and desperately need to use the university’s computer labs or library with final hand-ins and exams coming up soon? A whole range of liberties are infringed upon by shutting down an entire university, and in my opinion it is possibly a criminal offence to close a university rather than to crack down on the action of the protestors.

The police should deal with this swiftly and make sure public thoroughfares are clear, people are secure and their freedom and liberty is not being obstructed in any way. The university leadership and campus protection should make sure the university stays open at any cost. It might also be necessary to start a student movement called the Non-Racial Student Movement. At least the name would be more constitutional and many students would feel more comfortable joining it than joining the Black Student Movement or Student Representative Council.

A non-racial student movement would attract a variety of individuals with different views and philosophies and would be a good way to balance out any one-sided outlook. It could act as a counter-movement representing the students who want to keep on studying, and it seems to be the only means of coordinating students who are opposed to the Student Representative Council and Black Student Movement protest action.

Such an organisation would enable collective action on behalf of the students who want to mind their own business and get on with their studies. At present, there is no platform for this large group of students because in my opinion the university management, government and police have failed to act on their behalf.

Geoff Embling is a teacher, writer and political activist.


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  1. Shaun Westley Shaun Westley 21 October 2015

    SO MUCH WRONG HERE WOW. I’m sorry you feel the inconvenience of being denied access to paid facilities outweighs the academic exclusion of the entire working class in South Africa. White privilege defined. “Police should deal with this swiftly” – the very fact that you think this can be resolved by force is not only shocking and disheartening but quite frankly, totalitarian. So focused on how the protesters are inconveniencing those who don’t protest (but will benefit from potential outcomes of protest) , you fail to see how hundreds of potential students never get an opportunity to study in this country due to economic exclusion and inequality shaped by a previous government which YOU BENEFITED AND STILL DO BENEFIT FROM.

  2. Leon S. Leon S. 21 October 2015

    Wow Shaun, I didn’t know there were white people who really believed this, but it’s good to see that it’s not actually a race-based thing like the racists would presume.

    The problem here is that a minority of students are disrupting a majority, and using violence and intimidation to boot.

    If you think that “the entire working class in South Africa” has personally given YOU the mandate to protest violently at Universities, why are they not the ones protesting and why are they not protesting at the Government’s door (which fails to fund Universities)?

    The students protesting here are the selfish ones, who want more for themselves and don’t care about the other students who just want to study. You can dress that up as freedom fighting for everybody to sugarcoat it, but we both know it’s not true because if it were they’d be with you.

  3. Masana Ndinga Masana Ndinga 21 October 2015

    I am in total agreement with Shaun Westley, there is so much wrong with this post!

    ‘Such an organisation would enable collective action on behalf of the students who want to mind their own business and get on with their studies. ‘

    Unfortunately for you, this kind of ‘mind my own business’ attitude is reminiscent of apartheid – where numerous ‘non-racial liberals’ claimed to not be aware of apartheid, despite benefitting from it, and after its fall continued in disengagement similar to the annoyance you’re expressing now. A university is a public good (or at least is meant to be) and if your studies are so far removed from reality that you cannot see how this strike is pertinent to the long-term development of SA, then perhaps you need to rethink your priorities.

  4. Jaco Barnard-Naudé Jaco Barnard-Naudé 21 October 2015

    For a more incisive rendition of who is violating who’s constitutional rights unjustifiably here, read Pierre de Vos’s blog entry at

  5. Wessel Matthews Wessel Matthews 21 October 2015

    You summed it up so nicely. The author has been inconvenienced by demands of equality, and as such equality must wait. Yes, they must get their message across, but in a way that does not, in any capacity, affect you, a white man, or your fellow economically affluent, pre-armed-with-a-head-start-in-life students negatively. Shem. He talks about access to computers and meals being squandered, but doesn’t that pale in comparison to the entire futures of a great many people?

  6. Gbubemi Oyowe Gbubemi Oyowe 21 October 2015

    It’s strange that you make a distinction between students who are ‘small group of protesters’ and students who are ‘starting exams in less than two weeks.’ Surely, this distinction doesn’t identify different sets of people; those protesting are those who are supposed to write exams in two weeks. Moreover, the issues about which the protests are centred cut across this artificial distinction. Yes, protests that take violent forms must be condemned, but that is far from saying what you are saying here.

  7. John-Peter Gernaat John-Peter Gernaat 21 October 2015

    I don’t believe these protests are about current ills at current institutions, but rather about a realisation that a complete overhaul of tertiary education is required. Schools no longer prepare young people for life in our current, and ever changing, economy. There are many reasons for this, but the reality is that tertiary education is required in some form or other for all school leavers. Education should be the responsibility of all working folk, not just of the parents of a particular child. This means, in essence, that the taxes collected from working people and companies should be paying for education; not a minimum level of education but an optimal level that prepares the youth to take up their place in society (not necessarily just as employees, but as self-sufficient generators of income and even work creators).

    Change always starts with the few. These few may not even fully realise what they are asking for, but have a sense that things must change. Change is difficult for everyone to accept, that is the nature of being human. We may wish change away, but I feel this change is necessary as much as it is inevitable. Let thought leaders rather work on new possibilities instead of decrying the bravery of those who are sacrificing the time they could be studying (and ignoring the need for change) to bring this need for change to the fore.

  8. Chris Andrade Chris Andrade 21 October 2015

    I wonder if it would be only ‘an inconvenience’ if it was you on campus, writing final year exams, and missing critical lectures or access to staff and facilities that may very well end up costing you a pass.

  9. Ijaha LeManxeleni Ijaha LeManxeleni 21 October 2015

    Think about the varsity protest this way. If all our tax money that is wasted at municipalities( billions) ,Nkandla(millions) etc were rather made available to students we would not be having these protests.In short if there was no corruption and greed in this country we would not be having protests by students. I may not be sympathetic to “vandals” that overturn cars but the history of South Africa demands that this government sets its priorities right. Think of the “millions’ spent on Kings, millions spent on “functions” and mayors with bodyguards .Its a luxury we can do without.

  10. Peter Watermeyer Peter Watermeyer 21 October 2015

    Mr Embling’s article is indeed very naive and blinkered.
    In the smaller picture, the “protesting” (journalistic understatement for “threatening”) students have learnt that violence is the way to get what they want from others.
    In the bigger picture, this looks like the beginning of a revolutionary movement out of which very nasty consequences will arise for all of us. Oh, maybe not the beginning: the maturation? There is no way out of this calumny of limited resources and high expectations. The national situation, not just in academia, will get much, much worse before having any chance of a restoration to civility. All the signs are there.

  11. ryan howarth ryan howarth 21 October 2015

    but the students think this can be resolved with force? quite shocking and disheartening

  12. divvie divvie 21 October 2015

    How can you have”tertiary” education to fix “primary and secondary” education? Surely you have it the wrong way round? You have got the bolls by the dog. By definition primary and secondary should be fixed so that tertiary can follow.

  13. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 21 October 2015

    Why are you trying to make this a race issue? There are students of every colour who are protesting.

  14. Zingisa1 Zingisa1 21 October 2015

    Revolution getting into standby mode. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Expect protest for unemployed graduates. Ticking time bomb is coming closer to explosion.

  15. Sbat Sbat 21 October 2015

    When I lived in France as an exchange student, my school was shut down due to strikes over similar issues (Sarkozy had raised the tuition of public universities). I had to transfer to another school to continue, but I still had the ability to be introspective and empathetic to the issues the students faced.

    I think it also speaks volumes that someone who ordinarily would dismiss, or not lift a finger to help their fellow impoverished citizens economically, is frustrated about the inconvenience of those same fellow citizens taking an action of last resort (street protests). If they didn’t protest and shut things down, their cause would get no attention at all. Unlike a wealthy or upper middle class person, who can leverage a political process built to advance their interests.

  16. The Praetor The Praetor 22 October 2015

    I seriously cannot see why the state cannot make something like education free. Our constitution allows for it.
    Many countries in the world offer free education, and it puts them into a better position.
    There are many young people who has the capabilities, but are excluded simply because there is no way they can afford fees, and to say there are bursaries available is disingenuous, as bursaries apply to certain criteria only, and thereby excluding a huge pool of people, whom could have benefited the country and humanity.
    And if people say, the cost will be too high…why can Zimbabwe or Cuba do it?

  17. Nicola Nicola 22 October 2015

    Oh so the revolution must be convenient, tidy and preferably kept away from the nice orderly university? Get real and also… check your whiteness

  18. TerminalA TerminalA 29 October 2015

    so, how come the ANC government has constantly been withdrawing funding from these universities, thus sidelining those hundreds of potential students that need the funding from the ANC for further education…?
    ah well… i guess that’s also apartheid’s fault that the current ANC regime doesn’t believe its own people are worthy of further education…….

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