On October 19, 2016, police officers and student protesters at the University of the Western Cape’s Bellville Campus clashed violently, leading to numerous arrests, and ongoing charges of public violence.
In the wider context of the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa, which has been ongoing since October 2015, peaceful student protest resumed at UWC on October 3, 2016. The student residence at the UWC Bellville Campus reportedly functions as the operating base for the Fees Must Fall movement at UWC.
Beginning on October 5, 2016, the UWC administration implemented a partial shutdown of the campus, citing its intention to ensure the safety of students and staff and minimize destruction in the face of renewed protests: the administration temporarily suspended in-person lectures, and academic staff were instructed not to enter university grounds. Security personnel and certain administrative staff did remain on campus, as did students who were housed in student residences.
Reportedly in response to violent offences at the nearby Cape Peninsula University of Technology, police forces entered UWC grounds on October 19, 2016. Joined by security officials, they entered student residences at the Bellville Campus, reportedly in an attempt to locate the leaders of the Fees Must Fall movement at UWC. This led to clashes with the students who were on campus. Students reportedly threw rocks at the police, who responded by firing tear gas grenades, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the students. Reports indicate that police fired indiscriminately at students, regardless of whether they were alleged members of the Fees Must Fall movement or not. During the confrontation, student residences were damaged. During the police action, an unknown number of students were arrested – arrests reported ranged between seven and 37 students. In response to the violence, UWC extended its decision to suspend all in-person lectures until the end of the 2016 academic year.
Following the 19 October clashes, students continued their protest. On November 15 and 18, unknown persons set fire to an UWC nature conservation area and to the the Cassinga Teaching Lab, which houses UWC’s Centre for Innovative Educational and Communication Technology. From the latter building, around 20 computers were also stolen.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violence on campus, and entry onto campus by authorities in an apparent effort to target the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association. 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. Likewise, while students have a right to engage in on campus expression, that does not include violence or destruction. Campus violence threatens the well-being of higher education community members, and undermines academic freedom and institutional autonomy.