On September 5 and 6, 2016, student protests on multiple campuses of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) turned violent, resulting in injuries, arrests, destruction of campus property, and the temporary suspension of academic activities.
Over the course of two days, students on three UKZN campuses – Westville, Howard College, and Pietermaritzburg – held demonstrations connected to “Fees Must Fall,” a student movement that began in October 2015, opposing high tuition fees and racial discrimination on South African campuses. A growing number of protests associated with the South African movement have resulted in campus unrest, including violent clashes with police, destruction of campus property, and disruption of academic activities.
At UKZN, the protests began in the early morning of September 5, with students peacefully marching and chanting at the various UKZN campuses. Later on, the protests grew disorderly as some protesters — many of whom reportedly were not students — reportedly began entering classrooms, disrupting lectures, and destroying campus property. On the Westville campus, some protesters reportedly set fire to university security vehicles and the UKZN Senate building. Similarly, at Pietermaritzburg and Howard College, protesters set fire to trash and campus property, including Howard College’s law library. Police and private security officers on all three UKZN campuses reportedly responded by launching tear gas and firing rubber bullets in an effort to disperse protesters. By September 6, at least 40 UKZN students were arrested in connection to the protests, which resulted in many student injuries and significant damage to campus property. On September 6, UKZN officials announced the suspension of all academic activities until September 20.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force against students protesters, as well as reports that students protesters disrupted academic activity and destroyed campus property. While authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining order, they must do so in ways that are proportional to the situation, minimize the risk of physical injury, and otherwise respect institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and other applicable human rights standards. Use of excessive force in response to campus unrest threatens the well-being of higher education community members, and undermines academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Likewise, while students have the right to free expression, that right must be exercised in a manner that is consistent with university values including non-violence and social responsibility.