THE VIOLENCE OF NON-ENGAGEMENT

THE VIOLENCE OF NON-ENGAGEMENT

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It’s not easy to make sense of the current protests, especially not if there are attempts to distil our understanding into dualistic explanations of it’s either or. It’s this way or that way.

 

As I have said before the protests contain aspects that seemingly don’t make sense and veer into contradiction or paradox. The big one for society seems to be ‘why destroy what it is you say you are fighting for’? It is a societal perception to some extent that the student protestors seem to be burning what they say they are standing for.

 

If only an explanation were that easy…

 

I do feel, that I have a responsibility from my vantage point of having had some measure of access to the voices on the other side. Some of the student protestors.

 

First up let me say that I cannot articulate the current issues nearly as articulately and with the depth of wisdom and insight as many of the students I have had the opportunity to engage with. So I won’t even try.

 

I will say this though. And this is what I want to highlight. There has been long term and sustained commitment to engagement though dialogue. As a colleague highlighted, protest is, in itself, an invitation to dialogue.

 

Early this year there was a resurgence of protest and the Minister of Higher Education released a Statement committing to engagement but directing institutions of higher learning to engage with “legitimately and democratically elected structures” and to address grievances raised by “Legitimate” structures. Access to justice immediately raised concerns directly with the Minister as follows:

 

“With reference to your press release referred to in the subject line, we wish to articulate the following concerns and call for your reconsideration:

 

  • The Department has urged university management to engage with “legitimately and democratically elected structures” and to address the concerns and grievances raised by these “legitimate” structures
  • We believe that the above stance is anti-peacebuilding and is actually precipitating and exacerbating unrest which is turning violent at the campuses since those who already feel marginalised are being further marginalised in a way that directly violates against the Constitutional Right to Freedom of Association and collaterally violates against legitimate Rights to Protest
  • The fact that your Ministry is forcing independent institutions to engage only with elected SRC’s, especially in circumstances where these SRC’s are “winner take all” bodies and are not proportionally representative of the student body and also where institutions are able to disband the elected SRC and appoint its own is of grave concern to us and is an obvious impediment to building peace. Some Universities, it appears, also wiled the questionable power to approve or disapprove SRC Presidents which would perpetuate cycles of marginalization.

 

 

We call upon the department to reconsider its position that is exacerbating feelings amongst marginalised student and worker groups that there is little chance of them being authentically engaged and heard

 

This cannot be regarded as just and does not accord with Constitutional Principles

 

In closing we wish to articulate that all student and worker movements on the campuses that have consulted have clearly articulated a commitment to and growing desperation for authentic dialogue”

 

We cannot discount radical elements that might have crept in to the protests and that they might have illegitimate intentions relating to disruption and destruction.

 

But we cannot ignore the violence of non-engagement. The very act of non-engagement can be an act of violence in itself. It can also spawn other acts of violence and lead to a general escalation of and downward spiral of violence.

 

Since our address to the Minister it seems that our concerns have been realised in an all too real way. I by no means have a comprehensive handle or take on the whole picture but here are a few aspects I think are important for me to highlight:

 

  1. I have had experience of peaceful and non-violent protest being violently responded to. This is not okay. In a particular conversation I had, a member of academic staff at this particular campus articulated that these were some of the best minds we had-everything we could aspire to in our youth who were learning-and yet their peaceful, non-violent acts of protest (born out of the crisis of non-engagement) were responded to violently, and in my view brutally so
  2. Some of my colleagues and myself feel that what is needed is a moratorium on all student disciplinary action related to protests over the past year and to create a hiatis in which to explore other methods to bring about resolution. Possibly well-managed mediated dialogue with parties with actual authority to act and to make decisions at the table. This to bring about a disruption to the current passage of things and the worsening course of things. In conversations with various executives, there has been a complete rejection of such a notion and the re-inforcement that the students must stop with the protests but that the executives will proceed with discipline. This is problematic on very many levels. Firstly it doesn’t allow us to explore what could actually create some space to change the course of things. The door is just shut. We don’t get to check things out here. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, we don’t get the opportunity to stop the course of widespread administrative action that simply in many cases, does not accord with the rule of law and constitutional precepts. There is a widespread practice of University Suspensions prior to a proper hearing. Not only is this unlawful but it is worsening the situation, not improving it. And there is very little if no possibility that this practice will improve the situation. I could right an entire article on the ways in which Student Disciplinary Processes are often bad in law and I probably will.
  3. I am hearing from a lot of executives that they are engaging with student groups, that important and valuable conversations are being had and that by and large they are supportive of the underlying cause of protest but that they cannot “condone the methods”. The problem with this is that in the main, protest has been resorted to due to lack of engagement. Conversations are being had, but my view is that there are so many conversational “buffers” that the conversations, though valuable hardly ever reach a platform where they can make a difference. So the protestors hardly ever get an audience with the Vice Chancellors or the Ministry and that is where they feel they ned to be heard. Further to that, the incidences of protest turning violent are born out of a complex mix of feelings that other channels have been exhausted, often peaceful protest being responded to violently and many other factors which again are not easy to distil into simple explanations.

 

I honestly would be fooling myself if I felt like I had any substantial and sweeping solutions. I don’t. But I feel a responsibility to ventilate aspects that I consider to be anti-peacebuilding. And I do believe that there has been a policy of non-engagement that has contributed to worsening the situation.

 

As I often say, I will never justify the use of violent methods for anything. But there is an inevitability about escalation of violence in certain circumstances.

 

And non-engagement is a form of violence that will continue to spawn other forms of violence

 

Sheena St. Clair Jonker

sheena@accesstojustice.co.za

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