Right can end up wrong – Polity, 4 November 2015

While the demand by the protester for 0% fees is entitled to complete sympathy from the public, a real concern goes to the elements of undemocratic behaviour that are increasingly playing out in the protests.

By Sara Gon

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) adapted a saying originally attributed to French monarchist statesman, Francois Guisot (1787-1874) – "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”

While the demand by the protester for 0% fees is entitled to complete sympathy from the public, a real concern goes to the elements of undemocratic behaviour that are increasingly playing out in the protests.

The Constitution provides that –

• Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions;

• Everyone has the right to freedom of expression which includes freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.

But, and this is an important “but”, everyone has a constitutional right to:

• Equality before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law;

• Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected;

• Everyone has the right to life;

• Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause;

• Be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources;

• Bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right;

•  Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion; academic freedom and freedom of scientific research; from incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm;

• Freedom of association;

• Freedom of movement.

What this means is that people who were not protesting had rights that the protesters were not entitled to infringe.

So when Wits protesters spilled out of the campus dancing, singing and chanting on Empire Road, that protest was illegal in terms of municipal bylaws. The protesters did not have the legal right to disrupt traffic and the right of road users to drive on those roads.

It also means that, however impassioned the students felt, they did not have the right to “not allow” Wits senate members from leaving rooms within senate house.

The protesters were entitled to their strongly held opinions. And they were entitled to try to persuade others that their opinion was the right one. They had no right, however, to require other people to agree with their opinions. The strength of an opinion lies in the degree of persuasiveness of the idea, not its presentation.

The success of the protest must not lead people to believe that all demands can be met or that, even those that can, demands can be realised only through marches rather than petitions, negotiations or discussions.

No one is entitled to infringe anyone else’s constitutional rights. The government infringes on our rights all the time. This doesn’t prove the weakness of the constitution; it proves the weakness of a political system that allows a political party to be numerically dominant for too long.

Pearl Pillay, master’s student in political science at Wits University wrote “Wits: ‘Who are the real hooligans here?” (M&G, October 23 to 29 2015).

According to Ms Pillay violence is not only what you can see but it also is when a university shuts its doors to a student whose parents don’t share in the wealth of the country; when universities pay parents of students R 2700,00 a month but expect them to pay a registration fee of R 10 000. She says that the “elite” regards this latter “violence” as normal.

Ms Pearl says: “How intellectual is the argument that student protesters – who, in one day, are beaten, run over by cars, threatened with guns and knives, teargassed and pepper-sprayed by the police – are hooligans?

She accuse universities of putting in student leadership to fill chips and eat catered lunches, not for meaningful engagement. “Universities commit violence: physically and symbolically, against students. Who are the real hooligans here?”

Her passion should be applauded but her generalities and her failure to prove her allegations with facts are open to grave concern.

The danger of Ms Pearl’s argument is that if violence is everything, then violence becomes nothing. Rape, assault, murder (attempted to other), or physical and mental abuse mean the same as having to pay a deposit to a university to secure entrance. However problematic this latter issue is (and it is), it is not and could never be violence.

This extended definition of violence means that victims are never in charge of their own destiny – they are always at the mercy of the perpetrator/s.

When a crowd protests in a public space, the responses to the protest might be beatings, being run over by cars or threatened with guns and knives, teargassed and pepper sprayed. It doesn’t make the responses right. But people who have worked hard for the money they earn and are tiredly making their way home after work, may respond badly.

Much has been said about the general peacefulness of the protests. This is highly commendable. It shows discipline and dedication. But those protesting must never underestimate how frightening a large group of people bearing down on you – singing, chanting and toyi-toying – can be. Crowds by their nature can and are intended to appear overwhelming. And a lot of people were angry a lot of the time, even if not violent.

Government policy on fees for university is awful. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has sat on a report about alternative funding models for 3 years. His media comments (and Gwede Mantashe's) were appalling and insensitive. The universities may not have handled the crisis well enough but every university handled it differently and they cannot be lumped together. The demands on universities is huge, and unfortunately, student fees is not the only problem universities face, by a long stretch.

Does Ms Pearl have the facts to back up her claim that universities are only dealing with student bodies who are stooges? In a democracy and traditionally, student representative councils are voted into power by students to represent those students. With respect to the fees protest, only those who were voted for by students to represent students, actually had a legitimate right to represent students. Any body who was not voted for to represent students had no right to represent anyone but themselves.

If you don’t respect these processes, you don’t respect democracy. And you won’t get respect in return.

The right to vote for the government of your choice is sacrosanct. That was what the fight against apartheid was about. That vote, has in the last few years been squandered because people have continued to vote the ANC into power on the basis of sentiment rather than competence or good policy.

It doesn’t matter who you vote for: but do not vote for parties because of the colour of their berets, the slogans on their t-shirts or the magnetism of their leaders. Vote for a party once you read its policies and decided which party offers the most policies that you think will benefit you.

You owe it to yourself and you owe it to South Africa.

Finally I commend the following article to you:

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.

Read the article on Polity here