On January 27, 2020, police clashed violently with student protesters at the University of South Africa (UNISA).
On January 16, the South African Union of Students (SAUS) reportedly submitted a memorandum to the Higher Education, Science, and Technology Minister, demanding that student debts be scrapped, academic certificates and records be issued to students owing fees, and students who are in debt be allowed to register for classes, among other things. After negotiations reportedly fell apart on January 27, SAUS called for a national shutdown of all universities until the Minister met their demands.
That day, about one hundred UNISA students gathered in the university parking lot and blockaded a road just outside the campus with rocks, sticks, and materials set on fire. UNISA students allege the university had received funds from the government intended for use as financial aid, but have not allocated it to students. Students reportedly moved their protest onto the road when they were confronted by police. After students reportedly refused to disperse, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force against students peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which South Africa is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting expressive activity, so long as it is peaceful and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of force against student protesters undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.