CAPE TOWN, 22nd OCTOBER 2015: Yesterday saw another low point in our democracy with the police invoking draconian laws to punish legitimate student dissent. In the aftermath of the chaos at Parliament, which saw students forcing their way into the parliamentary precinct and a harsh and disproportionate police backlash, the police are reportedly seeking to charge several protesters with high treason, in addition to trespassing and illegal gathering. We understand that the National Prosecuting Authority is currently considering whether or not to persue the high treason charges. Another 23 arrested students are reported to face illegal gathering charges in terms of the apartheid era Regulation of Gatherings Act. There are differing reports about whether or not police will seek to charge anyone under the apartheid-era National Key Points Act.

When dissent becomes a “threat” to state security

The invoking of “treason” charges against six of the protesters is particularly outrageous. With this charge, the authorities show their contempt for the urgent struggle of these students to be heard. In place of a legitimate struggle to be heard and seen, all the state sees is a threat. This paranoid and insecure view of the world is not new. Last week, a State Security official in Parliament reportedly stated that the Right2Know Campaign is an agent of a foreign government. Similar accusations have been levelled at unions like NUMSA and AMCU, and people’s movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The same was done to the Anti Privatisation Forum, the Anti Eviction Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement and others from the late 1990s onwards.

Throughout history, students have often played a critical role in standing up to injustice, confronting authoritarianism and revitalising democracy. Rather than demonising the emerging student movement, we welcome them as a source of hope for our ailing democracy. Yesterday’s events are a direct result of the failure of leaders to listen to the voices and frustrations of the people for too long. The responsibility must lie with a society that has failed to give them a space to be heard and for their needs to be addressed.

It is clear society cannot ignore these voices any longer.

It is equally clear that they will not be stifled with legal threats, arrests, or physical violence. It is time to start listening.

Stop the Police Brutality

We condemn the statement by the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints) – a structure that includes the Police, Defence and State Security – which applauded the conduct of police yesterday. The lack of responsibility for the brutal assault against a restrained group of protesters could not be a more searing indictment against those appointed to protect and defend the constitution of this country.

This statement demonstrates not only a contemptuous disregard for constitutional freedoms but a growing sense of impunity for crimes committed by the police against ordinary people. By the admission of NatJoints itself, the protesters were non-violent. Yet dozens were injured and arrested.

The events at Parliament join a gallery of abuses alongside the arrest and detention of undocumented migrants under Operation Fiela, the massacre of workers at Marikana, the deaths in detention of Mido Macia and hundreds of others each year, tand he daylight murder of AndriesTatane and scores of other protester deaths since 1994. It includes the arrest and conviction of community healthcare workers (the Bophelo House 94) in Bloemfontein for committing the ‘crime’ of holding a night vigil against the unaccountable Free State health department, and a similar conviction of 11 Social Justice Coalition sanitation activists protesting against the City of Cape Town.

We call for the immediate suspension and disciplinary proceedings against all officers and their superiors responsible for yesterday’s attack on students.

Enable the right to protest

Yesterday we also saw just how disabling the environment is for legitimate democratic protest. No doubt many will be charged for contravening the Regulation of Gatherings Act. The Gatherings Act contains some important protections for the right to protest – for example, it should have protected the protesters at Parliament from the police’s unprovoked violence, but ultimately the Gatherings Act is an outdated apartheid era law that has failed to adequately promote and protect the constitutional right to protest. It’s technicalities are widely abused to deny people the right to engage in peaceful protest. So, for example, the option of notifying police of intent to protest is often misunderstood by police to mean that police has the authority to give or deny permission for protest action. Both the TAC and SJC are in the process of challenging aspects of the Gatherings Act through the courts.

There will inevitably be a backlash in public institutions and sections of the media about the tactics of this protest and various isolated incidents, but this fails to acknowledge that the formal avenues for the expression of grievances have often become dysfunctional.

Defend the right to protest on campus

Universities should be places where freedom of expression is sacrosanct. But this week the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch rushed to court to get interim interdicts to police the right of students to protest on their campuses. As of last night, the Cape Peninsular University of Technology (CPUT) was reported to be seeking a similar court interdict.

As a result of these court orders, students and staff at UCT and Stellenbosch who continued to assert their right to be heard faced heightened risk of violence at the hands of police and private security. Students and workers were arrested and detained. Many were subsequently released with no charge. This is obvious intimidation and harassment against students by both police and University management, and an assault on the freedom of expression that universities are meant to hold paramount.

At Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, police reportedly attacked protesting students with rubber bullets and stun grenades. At Rhodes University, police reportedly used stun grenades to disperse students.

The police’s heavy-handed attacks and university management’s failure to engage students will inevitably result in conflict and escalation of tensions and do nothing to meet students’ needs and concerns. It is no coincidence that the day after these universities secured their court orders, the protests grew exponentially and spilled out to Parliament.

Stand for an open Parliament

Yesterday’s events are also a symptom of the startling securitisation of Parliament since the 2014 elections. This has included the induction of riot police into Parliament’s “civilian” security services, the interventions of State Security to intimidate and root out whistleblowers, the jamming of mobile phone signals and cutting of Parliament’s TV feed, and the repeated forceful removal of MPs from the National Assembly.

Defend Democracy

We stand in solidarity with students who are fighting a crucial struggle for access to higher education and an end to outsourcing of workers on campuses, and with the many organisations and individuals who have come forward to join them.

This crisis must be resolved through democratic means, with a commitment to upholding transparency and freedom of expression, and engaging students in good faith.

More than anything, South Africa needs an open, inclusive and informed debate about democratising access to higher education. A good place to start would be for the Minister of Higher Education to make public the ‘No Fees Varsity report’ which explores the feasibility of free university education for students from low-income households. We have the right to know!


For more information contact:
Mark Weinburg (Right2Know) – 084 993 0591
Mazibuko Jara (United Front) – 083 987 9633