Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 2 November 2015

Ali Al-Nimr: When protesting can cost you life

Like many protesters in South Africa over the past several weeks, Ali Al-Nimr, a Saudi Arabian student, is accused of being part of protests, of teaching others how to conduct first aid, and faces death by execution any hour from now. This is the price for protest in parts of our world. Our constitutional democracy has legitimised peaceful protest, but we shouldn't forget about our international peers.

The #feesmustfall movement found some legitimacy in that the governing ANC has been aligned with the demands of the students, at least since 1955. This alignment is strengthened by the ANC’s own policy resolutions over time. This was confirmed at the ANC’s 2007 and 2012 national policy conferences, which amplified the plight of poor students in higher education. This was confirmed, again, in January this year, when President Jacob Zuma, in his capacity as ANC president, said:

We are also showing steady improvements in tertiary education and student financial aid is increasing all the time. Our figures show that more than 1,4 million students have benefited from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). However, we are concerned at the escalating costs of tertiary education and the annual raising of fees by universities and other institutions of higher learning. This escalating cost has become another source of exclusion for the poor and vulnerable South African child. While we appreciate the autonomy of universities, we must caution universities against excluding students on the basis of price and race.”

Presaging what was to follow in October, Zuma addressed two key aspects of student demands: unaffordable fees and unfair increases, and university autonomy, which placed blocks in the way of transformation.

That was in January. In October, South African police allowed, and in great measure enabled students to hold protest marches outside campuses without the requisite legal permits. In Stellenbosch and in Cape Town, police showed restraint, and marshalled students to their destinations. In Cape Town, about 200 students and their supporters decided to storm Parliament, and entered the precinct illegally. This presented some danger to protesters who were unaware that police had been pushed, scrummed and shoved out of the way. Police restraint was also evident during the protests at Union Buildings. As citizens we can only be proud of the massive restraint shown by the South African Police Services (SAPS) when stones and other projectiles were thrown at them, and when protesters broker through cordons to take student grievances to their commander in chief, President Zuma. The police did their best, at Parliament and at the Union Buildings, to clear student protesters, whose ranks had been swelled by non-students of all ages.

From these actions there emerged two narratives. The first was that Parliament represented the interests of the people, and storming its barricades was not a straight-forward matter. The second was that police used force, by first holding using their riot shields to move crowds away from forcing their way into Parliament. They also used smoke bombs to scare the crowd away and out of precinct. These actions were criticised as being overly aggressive. However, no live rounds, or tear gas was used. One smoke bomb burnt a student who tried to kick it away. A picture of the incident went viral on the internet.

What also emerged from the #feesmustfall protests was a crude and careless comparison with the student uprisings of 16 June 1976. Starting in 1975, and culminating in the tragic events of 1976, when many school children were shot and killed, the protests were against a decree that Afrikaans was be the primary language of instruction in black schools. Indigenous languages were banned, and could only be used when teaching the bible. Estimates of how many people were killed on that fateful day range from 170 to 800, depending on which sources you prefer. I found it chilling that the storming of Parliament, and the none-lethal tactical removal of protesters are considered to be the same as the 1976 uprisings. In 1976, it did not matter how old you were, police snipers killed children in school uniforms for carrying cards that read “Down with Afrikaans”. The chosen song of protest in 1976 was not ‘Iyo Solomon’, but “If we do Afrikaans, Voster must do Zulu”. The image of 13 year-old Hector Pieterson is a heart-wrenching symbol of all children who died in the 1976 protests. Many others, older and younger than Pieterson, died during those protests.

South Africans are a keenly hyperbolic bunch. We have been quick to reduce and rewrite our history, whitewashing it as though we were running away from its true pain. In 1976 there were no police marshalling students peacefully. At the time there was death, blood, mayhem, gross injuries, exile, arrests and imprisonment. Protesting then, whether you were armed or not, could lead to death. Children and young adults were detained without trial, and many were tortured.

As I write, Ali al-Nimr, arrested by Saudi Arabian authorities on 14 February 2012 when he was 17 year-old, for being part of a public protest, is going through a torturous time. After his arrest he was taken to, Dar al-Mulahaza, a centre for juvenile rehabilitation, where he was held until he turned 18, after which he was returned to a prison in the town of Dammam. During his incarceration Ali has not been allowed access to his lawyers, and unable to appeal against his conviction. He has been held in solitary confinement since. Because he has, effectively, run out of appeals, there are fears that he may be executed soon. If this is carried out Ali will be hanged, after which his body will be crucified, and left to rot on the crucifix for three days.

By the time that #feesmustfall started, in early October, Ali al-Nimr had been moved, and held incommunicado. While he is not the only student who has been imprisoned by the Saudi authorities, Ali al-Nimr has become a symbol of the struggle of students in that country. Two other youths Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher, have been imprisoned by Saudi authorities, and could face a similar fate as Ali al-Nimr.

Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to death on 27 May 2014 by a court in Jeddah, for offenses that included “taking part in demonstrations against the government”, “attacking the security forces” and “possessing a gun”. He protested, was arrested, brutalised and tortured into making a confession, and now he will be hanged and crucified. This is brutality.

As our #feesmustfall movement continues, we must remember fellow students like Ali, and be grateful for the freedoms we have. We must remember Ali, demand his release and a new trial. If we do not raise our voices, their fate will appear normal and deserved. Should we not, also, extend the boycott goods from Israeli settlements, is it not time to do the same on Saudi oil? As we remember Ali, remember the truth about June 1976. DM


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