Mainstream media and social media platforms have painted a picture of student protests as a series of increasingly violent confrontations between students, university staff, private security and SAPS. My experience of these has been very different.
I am a general practitioner of many years, a part-time tutor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at UCT Health Science Faculty, and a member of the recently formed Staff for Social Justice in Education (S4SJE) group at the faculty.
Members of the S4SJE group decided in consultation with protesting students that it would be useful to have observers following protest actions on the Health Sciences Faculty campus. The purpose was to witness events in order to provide an impartial narrative if necessary, and possibly help to avert excessive reaction from security guards or other staff.
I was very impressed by what I saw while observing at this campus, and would like to share this, to counter the largely negative information being fed to the public through various channels, including mainstream and social media.
This is a personal reflection and not an analysis of the complex set of issues informing the student action. It is written in my personal capacity.
The plan was to disrupt a class at Old Main Building, Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) – chosen because it is not a building where there are many patients. Before setting out, the students repeated how important it was to be peaceful and quiet, and repeated their regular chant: High morale; high discipline.
They went quietly to the class, knocked on the door, requested the lecturer’s permission to disrupt, and waited while she closed the door and went in to ask the class if they agreed. The class agreed, and the protesting students filed in. Two spokespeople explained that they were there to explain, listen, and answer questions. There followed a polite, mutually respectful Q+A session, where students in the class were able to ask difficult questions and get considered answers. Disagreements with the protesting students were voiced and openly discussed. There was no judgement, recrimination or abuse of the class students by the protesting students.
At one stage three GSH security men in uniform appeared in the corridor outside, followed by the head of GSH security. After a discussion with two students, the head of security asked the uniformed staff to leave, stating that they were not needed as this was a peaceful situation, and that uniformed presence could inflame the situation. I would like to commend him for this very sensible and sensitive approach.
The GSH chief executive, Dr Patel, appeared a few minutes later. Two students met with her in the corridor. The three of them had a calm conversation, with Dr Patel explaining that she could not allow protests on provincial property, and that the dean had been contacted, and agreed with her position. The student leaders therefore requested their group to leave, emphasising that this should be done quietly.
The two students were invited up to Dr Patel’s office, (asking me to join as an observer) where they sat together at her round table (rather than across the desk from her) and she served them iced water. She stated her position, which was that she respected the students’ conduct, but could not allow protests on the site, largely because of concern that staff and patients might feel threatened.
The students listened carefully, gave their views, and assured her that they did not want people to feel scared or threatened as they realised that patients and their families are vulnerable. The students expressed concern about the way in which their actions were perceived, saying that as health science students they completely understood the need to behave with consideration within the hospital environment, and asking why they seemed to be regarded as animals to be feared. I was really sad that they have felt this to be the prevailing view of themselves and their behaviour.
This was a very positive interaction, with good understanding on both sides, and ended well, with handshakes and good wishes all round.
This is very different to what one reads in media.
The next destination, after returning as requested to the faculty campus, was a set of first year tutorials. The protesting students arrived and were welcomed in the corridor outside the classes by the subject convenor. She personally introduced them, in pairs, into each tutorial group of three to six students. This approach immediately defused the situation, and many students and tutors found the disruption to be a very positive experience.
I sat in on one tutorial and it was an excellent lesson in communication. The two protesting students were introduced, and invited to join the group round the table. They immediately established a rapport by commenting on the books being studied. They went on to explain that they understood people were uncertain, and they wanted to make this a safe space in a small group to ask questions. The first question was from a student attending the tutorial, who said she woke up every morning feeling conflicted about how she should be responding, and whether to come to classes.
The “disrupters” listened to her, expressed understanding and empathy, and went on to answer this and many other very honest questions carefully and respectfully. The class attenders raised many further questions, about their own uncertainty and fears, the theoretical basis of the protest’s calls, and their future plans. All were answered carefully, with respect and empathy. I was quite frankly blown away by the calibre of the protesting students, their listening skills, and by their very detailed insight into and knowledge of the theory behind their movement. It was a great learning experience for me, and I took notes. After a dialogue of about 30 minutes, the protesting students left peacefully and the tutorial continued.
While I recognise that these are small examples, and other interactions may have been very different, I cannot emphasise enough how different these particular “disruptive” interactions were from the general perceptions and media reports of protesting students.
In conclusion, our students are a very impressive group of thoughtful, articulate, committed people and I concur with the responses of many in the Faculty of Health Science who say that we clearly have a lot to learn from them. I admire them for their courage in standing up for their principles, in a society where not enough of us do this. It was a privilege to observe them. DM
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle