SACOMM STATEMENT: Student protests and related Freedom of Expression rights

21 October 2015

SACOMM is the professional representative association which represents academics and scholars in South Africa, working within the fields of the communication sciences, including media studies, journalism, film, corporate communication and communication in general.

We note with concern the various instances of violation of freedom of expression and speech rights, accompanying the current student protests against the rise of university tuition fees.

Nationwide, our students and academics have legitimate concerns over the rising cost of tuition fees, which serve as a mechanism for economic exclusion from higher education. The students and others protesting peacefully in solidarity, are within their constitutionally protected rights to express these concerns through protest action, assembly, organising and mobilising, and via media communications channels such as the social media.

The efforts at various sites around the country to deny student groups from practising these rights are deplorable, since they violate the principles of an open democracy, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and the fundamental human rights of free expression, speech and the right of assembly and/or protest. Such recent transgressions of these rights include:

  • The Western Cape High Court interdict regarding student protests at the University of Cape Town, including the apparent interdiction of the hashtag “#FEESMUSTFALL”, which amounts to the banning of a free speech act that is unconstitutional and therefore unlawful.
  • The reported shutting down of the Wifi service at the University of Pretoria, which disenables students from making use of communications networks during the protests, including the social media.
  • The shutting down of the University of Pretoria campus by security, thus preventing students from partaking in their right to assembly on the campus.
  • The presence of an armed police contingent at recent protests near the Wits campus – a clear threat to the safety of students while practicing their free expression rights of protest and assembly.
  • The arrest and detention of students at the University of Cape Town.
  • The use of stun grenades and rubber bullets by the police against protesting students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, causing injury to some students.
  • The various instances of police violence against protesting students at the Tshwane University of Technology (which has been recurrent for some time).
  • The use of violence and stun grenades by public order policing against students outside of Parliament in Cape Town.

We call on all university managers to show respect for our scholars and we call on scholars to respect the rule of law, and with university managers to foster open channels for constructive engagement. We ask that you remind yourselves that the students are entitled, by law, to utilise all modes of communications, including the social media, to organise, debate, connect, and disseminate their messages. But we also deplore the use of intimidation, threat and violence by any party.

We call on the South African Police Service and all campus security workers to practice restraint and ensure the safety of our young people, while allowing them to practice their right to have their voices heard through the actions of protest and assembly.  By the same logic, we must respect the rights of those who wish to continue with their rights of association and freedom of assembly on campuses.

We offer solidarity to our academic colleagues at various campuses around the country, who have shown support to the students, and attempted to act as mediators between security workers and police in order to ensure the safety of the student protestors.

SACOMM stands in support of the struggle of students to make quality higher education a more accessible reality for all scholars willing to learn. No one should be made poor from attending a university.


For further comment contact:

Prof Colin Chasi (SACOMM President): 082 555 0436

Prof Pier Paolo Frassinelli (SACOMM Communication Advocacy focus group): 072 338 0406

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