On September 21, 2016, police officers clashed with students protesting at the University of Witwatersrand (“Wits University”). Several students were reportedly wounded in the clashes, which reportedly included the firing of rubber bullets and stun grenades by the police, and stones thrown by students.
On the morning of September 21, Wits University students met on campus for an organizing meeting for “Fees Must Fall,” a student movement that began in October 2015 opposing high tuition fees and racial discrimination on South African campuses. Several hours later, many of the students left campus, deciding to march to Braamfontein, a suburb of Johannesburg, where they briefly demonstrated before police ordered them to leave. The students returned to campus and protested at the university gates while police officers reportedly formed a line in front of the students, ordering them to stay on campus. Shortly thereafter, some students marched up to the officers and, in response, officers fired stun grenades. Student protesters reportedly retreated behind the gates of Wits University while police officers reportedly fired rubber bullets and stun grenades; students threw stones at the officers in return. Several students were treated for injuries and at least one was hospitalized. In response to the clashes, Wits University officials ordered the suspension of academic activities until September 18.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of violent force by police in response to the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and academic freedom. 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.