On November 11, 2015, weeks of student protests escalated on the campus of the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, including attacks on security personnel and students, as well as damage to university property.
Beginning in mid-October, students on campuses throughout South Africa had been holding demonstrations against high tuition fees, demanding, among other things, free tuition for poor students as part of a movement known as the #FeesMustFall Campaign. As protests continued, tensions increased, with police reportedly firing rubber bullets and using stun grenades to disperse protesters in at least one instance. On October 23, the protesters secured a nationwide tuition freeze for 2016.
Protests continued in early November, and became particularly heated at the University of the Western Cape. On November 11, protesters reportedly disrupted exams, set university buildings on fire, attacked security guards, and looted a cafeteria, leading to confrontations with police and multiple student arrests.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violence on university campuses. While students have the right to free expression, that right does not extend to violence or the destruction of property; on-campus expression must be undertaken in a manner that is consistent with university values including social responsibility. Student violence against persons or property also creates unnecessary risks of physical harm to individuals and undermines academic freedom and institutional autonomy. At the same time, while state and university authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining order and protecting property, they must do so in ways that are proportional to the situation, that respect peaceful expression, and that minimize the risk of physical injury. Use of excessive force in response to campus unrest unnecessarily increases risks of physical harm to individuals and undermines academic freedom and institutional autonomy.