On August 30, 2018, police reportedly fired water cannons at students participating in a protest at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine. Ten students were arrested during the protest.
For two weeks, UKZN students had been on strike over allegations of issues with university residence halls and mismanagement of university funds. On August 30, approximately two hundred UKZN medical students blockaded the university entrance. One report indicated that protesting students blockaded the university entrance and intimidated university staff and other students. After students refused to disperse, police reportedly fired water cannons at the student protesters. No injuries were reported. Police arrested ten students and charged them with contravening the Gatherings Act. (UKZN had previously been the site of protests over these same issues in August, with violent clashes between students and police on August 8 and August 13.)
The students were released after a court hearing on August 31. UKZN administration said that they would meet with students to address their concerns; however, the Medical School’s Student Representative Council president reported they were still waiting for that meeting.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest of and violence against students in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association–conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which South Africa is party. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with these rights and to refrain from the use of force intended to restrict them. Likewise, while students have the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, they have a responsibility to exercise such rights peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such actions undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.