As organisations that work to protect and advance the right to protest, we note with concern the situation on various university campuses across the country.
Tensions have risen to an all-time high with the shutdown of many universities across the country, the widespread use of force, interdicts, arrests, private security and police brutality on campuses.
In the past weeks we have been seriously concerned about widespread reports of peaceful student protests across the country being met with repression and intimidation. This unfortunately echoes the use of coercion (including the use of interdicts) to prevent and stifle any protest action, including peaceful protests, over the past year.
The Constitution protects the right to protest, peacefully and unarmed. This includes protests that are non-violent but disruptive of normal activities. Our organisations have been inundated with the need to respond to arrests of students at various institutions as well as documented cases of police and private security brutality. In many of the cases, it is clear that the arrests are arbitrary and unjustified.
The use of interdicts
The practice of Universities obtaining wide-ranging court orders that effectively ban any disruptive protest appears to be continuing this year, despite the fact that such measures contribute to an escalation of tensions at universities.
It deserves reiteration that these interim orders are problematic because:
- They prevent students from engaging in actions that are necessary to give effect to their constitutionally-protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly;
- Their very existence evidences a preference for court sanctioned quashing of legitimate protest instead of listening to students and addressing their concern;
- The wide-ranging court orders are wrongly used as a basis to invite police onto campuses who unlawfully arrest any person engaged in protest action on the grounds of contempt of court.
Furthermore, universities in the past have instituted internal disciplinary processes against students for engaging in peaceful protest. We have also had experiences of universities frustrating and delaying the release of arrested students. These processes often happen without attention and proper representation of students. The cumulative effect of which amount to tactics of coercion and creates an environment on campuses that is hostile to student political expression.
Extreme use of force by police and private security
We are especially concerned about violence that has been meted out on student protesters, and now also journalists, especially by private security who are not accountable to the public. The conduct of the authorities and private security has already deepened tension and conflict, and escalated the responses from many protesters.
All students’ rights should be protected, including the right to protest and the right not to partake in protest. We note with concern incidents where certain protesters’ conduct and tactics have gone beyond the protected right to protest. We do not condone these incidents, but in many cases they can be understood as an almost inevitable response to securocratic approaches on many campuses to ‘deal’ with the return of #FeesMustFall protests through clampdowns (see recent analysis by Professor Jane Duncan on The Conversation).
We call on all universities and on government to respect and protect the right to protest, and to ensure that action is taken against the inappropriate use of force by police and private security.
- Equal Education Law Centre (EELC)
- Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI)
- Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR)
- Right2Know Campaign (R2K)
- Social Justice Coalition (SJC)
- Right2Know Campaign. This article was first published in Right2Know Campaign Website.
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