SACOMM STATEMENT: The crisis in higher education, student protests and related freedom of expression rights

11 October 2016 – In light of the current crisis and as communication scholars, we call for universities to embrace a flexible, pragmatic, humane and dialogical approach, and make our skills in communication and conflict resolution available to our academic communities to help resolve the current impasse.

We note with concern, the following:

The chronic underfunding of tertiary education by government has in large part contributed to the current crisis. Government must address this problem immediately.

The number of students at universities has increased exponentially since the end of apartheid. This is an important development, itis key to decreasing the wide scale inequality in our country and it is good for our democracy.

However, our government has not adequately funded this increase in student numbers. The amount of government funding per student has decreased every year, forcing universities to recover costs by raising student fees. As a result, tuition fees at higher education institutions are beyond the reach of too many students and their families, while at the same time, universities are facing a funding crisis of sustainability.

Basic, secondary and tertiary education is a public good that deserves better investment. It must become one of our government’s priorities. We do not need to redirect funding from other social services for the poor in order to fund education properly. Government must urgently explore and institute alternative funding sources for education, such as curbing military spending (we are not a country at war), recouping misspent funds, preventing state corruption and maladministration of funds, reducing spending on non-essential projects and luxuries (such as nuclear power) and stopping the flight of money which routinely leaves the country illegally.

The involvement and presence of the South African Police Services (SAPS), Public Order Policing Units (POPU) and private security guards on our campuses often makes the situation worse. This is putting our students and our colleagues at risk.

During the #FeesMustFall movement, in both 2015 and 2016, we have seen that when university management brings SAPS, public order policing units or private security guards onto our campuses, the conflict and violence only get worse. Many of the acts of violence by students have happened as a direct response to police and private security brutality. We also note with concern the many instances in which academics and other university staff have been subject to private security or police brutality, harassment, intimidation and physical harm.

The increasing presence of these security forces on our campuses around the country is extremely dangerous, and unnecessarily exacerbates the situation causing an increase in the conflict. We know that most of these security services do not have the necessary training in how to manage public protests in a reasonable and responsible way, or how to diffuse a situation peacefully without causing tensions to escalate into violence. These security services are trained to use force, and it is therefore inappropriate to engage their services on our campuses.

Freedom of expression, for the students, for academics, and for staff/workers

Nationwide, our students, academics and other university workers have legitimate concerns over the rising cost of tuition fees, which serve as a mechanism for economic exclusion from higher education. The students and otherswhen 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.

  • We call on all university managers to show respect for our students and their freedom of expression rights. We ask that you remind yourselves that the students are entitled, by law, to utilise all modes of communications, including the social media, or physical assembly, to organise, debate, connect, and disseminate their messages.
  • We call on all university managers to show respect to academics and all university workers who show solidarity to the student movement, and who may therefore openly criticize university managements’ actions or decisions. We expect you to respect their academic freedom and freedom of expression rights, as defined by Section 16 of the Constitution.
  • We condemn all criminal and violent acts, whether they are committed by students and protestors, members of private security, or other stakeholders, and call on all members of our academic communities to help fostering open channels for constructive engagement.
  • 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.

Media and press freedom

The student movement is a matter of national importance and the dissemination of reliable information about it is in the public interest. It is crucial to our country that the media sector is allowed to do its work and perform its duties in this regard without fear or intimidation.

As the educators of future journalists and communications practitioners, we are horrified at the reports that journalists have been barred from campuses,pepper-sprayed, beaten with batons, man-handled, intimidated, and had their footage forcibly deleted by police or private security guards on various campuses. This is unacceptable in a democracy, and is a violation of Section 16 of the Constitution.

We also remind SAPS that your own rules prohibit you from treating the media in this way. SAPS Standing Order 156 instructs you to treat all media representatives with respect, courtesy and dignity even when provoked. You may not delete a journalist’s photographs or footage – this is against the law. Anyone, in any open public space, is allowed to photograph you and you may not stop them.

We are also concerned at reports that some protestors have tried to dictate terms of coverage to journalists. The media must be allowed to perform its work free from all forms of interference.

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. We call on the government and our academic communities to commit seriously to negotiation and action around the call for free, decolonized education in South Africa.

No one should be made poor from attending a university.

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