by Senamiso Moyo | University of the Witwatersrand
As a Zimbabwean student studying in South Africa, the recent student protests that swept through the country were a strange occurrence. It was amazing to witness students gather in large numbers to fight against unrealistic tuition fee increases imposed by the universities.
The general feeling amongst most Zimbabwean students, as we watched our South African colleagues shut down universities, public roads and march to the Union Buildings (where the executive arm of government sits), was mostly fascinating and intriguing. Most of us grew up in post 1980 Zimbabwe and had never witnessed such a huge protest before. Where singing, dancing and generally disruptive behaviour on the streets was used by people to get the attention of the bigger heads and have their demands. Throughout most of the demonstrations we kept asking ourselves, “Where are the riot police? Or why don’t they just accept the increases? After all its life”
Not to say we don’t have protests and demonstrations in Zimbabwe, but they are usually dealt with so much more differently, especially if it concerns what the State considers trivial matters. Any gathering that seeks to disrupt the peace or the functioning of Civil Society is usually nullified before it becomes a matter to write home and report about.
However, throughout these protests we were exposed to the good and the bad of protest action and to some extent, we gained an understanding of why the Zimbabwean government deals with disruptions like this so swiftly. At first students were united in one movement which led to President Jacob Zuma announcing that there will be no fee increases for the year 2016. However, there was now a lot of external political interference riding on the wave of what was for a good cause. Various political institutions then used the student movement to pressurize the ANC government to provide free education and an end to non-standard labour practices within tertiary institution. The reasonableness of the demands was now seemingly lost and the majority of the students wanted to resume classes with final exams fast approaching.
What subsequently transpired was a huge conflict between the student bodies. There were the more politically inclined students who wanted to continue with the protests and the shutdown of campuses. Funded by rival political parties, they staged one of the longest on-campus occupations in history, defending their stance by any means, which included threats of violence. Then there were the majority of the students who accepted that 0% increase was reasonable and wanted to continue with exams, campus had of course been shut down for two weeks.
As part of the majority I began to understand why the Zimbabwean government dealt with disruptive action so swiftly. When the demands from protestors became unreasonable, everyone looked to the The South African Police Service (SAPS) to act. The University did everything within the ambit of the law to deter protestors. However, in respecting the right to freedom of protest afforded by the South African constitution, the SAPS just watched on and basically did nothing. Exams were postponed and this put a lot of students in danger of not graduating and foreign students whose permits were to expire soon in danger of having to leave the country without writing examinations. This is the great disadvantage with the right to protest, it affords the protesting party too much power, it seizes being negotiation and becomes a demand with no room for bargaining. This is only acceptable in so far as the protesting party does not abuse this right as the protestors did in this case.
The plight of poor students and exploited workers is one that I sympathise with deeply. However, any right that is afforded in any constitution, may be limited if it infringes on the rights and interests of another person. Zimbabwe and South Africa are two extremes, and there is still a long way to go in establishing a balance in this regard.