On October 20, 2016, police officers reportedly shot rubber bullets at students engaged in a protest at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits University). At least four students were reportedly shot, one of them as many as ten times, at close range.
According to reports, the October 20 protest began peacefully, with students marching and chanting, but later grew disorderly. The protest was in connection with “Fees Must Fall,” a student movement that began in October 2015, opposing high tuition fees and racial discrimination on South African campuses. Conflict between authorities and student protesters during Fees Must Fall protests have been reported previously; incidents have included police clashes, destruction of property, and temporary closures of higher education institutions across the country. While most students were engaged in peaceful expressive activity during the October 20 protest, some participants reportedly disrupted academic activities on campus, interrupting an exam and tearing up test papers. Police arrived on the scene to disperse the protesters, and reportedly launched teargas and opened fire on student protesters with rubber bullets. Student leader Shaeera Kalla was reportedly shot 10 times in the back at close range while her hands were up. She and another student were hospitalized while other students were treated on campus.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force against students protesters, as well as reports that students protester disrupted academic activity. 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.