On March 15, 2021, the South African Police Service reportedly fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse student protesters demanding the cancellation of student debt. One student reportedly suffered an apparent rubber bullet wound during the day’s protests.
Since March 8, students at South African universities have protested policies that exclude students who owe tuition fees from registering for classes. Some of the protests resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters, with at least one person killed.
On March 15, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse students protesting in the Braamfontein neighborhood, which surrounds the University of Witwatersrand campus, in Johannesburg. Reports indicate that some of the protesters were attempting to occupy a nearby highway when police began firing a water cannon. Some students also reportedly blockaded roads with burning tires. Reporters covering the protest on live television reported that, amidst the police response, a young woman, suspected to be a student, was shot in the leg by a rubber bullet, leaving a deep flesh wound. She was later transported to a hospital.
That day, police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo denied claims that they shot at students, stating that only water cannons and a smoke grenade were used to disperse students.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force by police in response to a student protest — conduct that is protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Instruments and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which South Africa is a party. While state authorities have a right to maintain public order and safety, they should refrain from the use of force and ensure that their response is proportionate to the situation and does not result in harm to students or other protesters. Likewise, students should be reminded to refrain from violence in their expressive activities. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of force, especially when intended to restrict student expression, undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.