Defend Truth


The Case for Disruption: Join us or go home

Elisha Kunene is a trainee human rights lawyer, working primarily in mining, customary law and land affairs. He spends his free time podcasting about the Constitutional Court of South Africa, being devastated by Arsenal results and arguing about Bernie Sanders. Elisha writes in his personal capacity, and against his better judgment. He accepts hate-mail on at @Eli_Kunene.

The discussion surrounding university protests is tremendously impoverished by the baseless assertion that interfering with scheduled lectures is always wrong. That those who disturb lectures are denying innocent students their right to continue with their studies is the premise repeatedly used by universities to justify private security campus militarisation, unspeakable police violence and racial profiling, and a host of other serious human rights violations.

The most recent wave of protest action has seen a steady escalation in state-sanctioned violence. Besides inflicting trauma on many young people, it has led to a breakdown in trust between universities and their students and between police and the citizens they are entrusted to protect. Now more than ever, it is necessary to dismantle the shallow justification for this violence by having an honest interrogation of the rights of protesters not only to protest, but also to prevent their peers from receiving lectures.

One Man One Vote? No.

Protests are a form of political speech which becomes necessary when students do not have sufficient bargaining power to have their grievances receive attention. These students have no choice but to vote with their feet. It does not follow that all students should automatically have an equal vote in all such disputes.

We cannot all have an equal voice when we do not all have an equal interest in the matters being decided. Students across the country have said this consistently. Often the matters being protested against are directly correlated to the systemic inequality which defines South African politics.

Over the years, my university, UKZN, has protested against NSFAS financial aid, financial exclusions, residence safety, security and police misconduct, and several other issues which exclusively affect poor and working-class black students. Each year there are students who have such a lack of self-awareness that they take to our university’s social media pages to complain that driving to campus and having lectures cancelled is a waste of petrol.

In most years, many of the students who are most likely to choose lectures are actually making a fairly low-impact decision either way. If they are not allowed to continue with lectures they may have their holiday rearranged inconveniently, or they may have a marginally reduced quality of education because they had a few hours less lecturing time in each module, or have to write exams under more stressful conditions and achieve a slightly lower grade. All of these costs are suffered to a greater extent by protesters themselves.

First, protesters lose the actual time they spend protesting, and insofar as they disproportionately consist of less privileged students, they have less access to resources to insulate themselves from academic pressure. Another consideration which often gets ignored is the consuming nature of protest action and the varying ability of different students to escape campus conditions. When the protest is in full force there are loud mass meetings held at my residence, the libraries are closed, people bang on my door to invite me to join the movement, and every so often there are police officers standing just outside the building shooting rubber bullets at us through the windows.

We choose to protest because the costs of not succeeding are even greater – often not coming back to the university at all, but in many ways we do not choose to protest at all. It is largely circumstantial. Of course not all students who wish to attend lectures are wealthy, but often it is the students who have the least to lose and the greatest ability to go home and shield themselves from the harsh realities of campus unrest that are most likely to condemn protesters and call on management to add fuel to the furnace we inhabit.

The trouble with polls, for instance, is that they suggest that the views of all students across the spectrum matter equally. When some students are allowed to attend lectures and maintain an air of normalcy, it dilutes the efficacy of protest action and further reproduces the root inequality. We cannot afford to fail.

Collective Action

Education is a service transaction a university provides to a collective (a class of students). The service itself is not divisible and to a large extent cannot be replicated. In most universities, without lecture recordings, once a lecture is missed its content is lost. Crucially, a decision to protest is not a decision to abandon the academic programme, rather it is a decision to alter or suspend the academic programme such that those who participate in protests can resume their studies after the issue is resolved.

Those who attend lectures while their classmates are protesting are quick to assert their right to an education. You may well have the right to receive a lecture or write a test, but that does not necessarily mean that you have the right to receive that lecture on the specific terms which were decided before a substantial proportion of your peers decided they were sufficiently aggrieved to want to reschedule.

Universities reschedule tests and exams to their convenience all the time. To suggest that the student body does not have any say over the academic calendar to allow for protest action is absurd. It is even more absurd to suggest that the mere fact of showing up to a class gives you as a student the right to make that decision not only for yourself, but on behalf of the whole class.

Why is your right to education greater than the rights of those who will not receive this lecture? Lecturers are happy to proceed even if less than half of the class is present. When they are not happy to do so university management forces them to show protesters no mercy. They assume that those who are absent no longer deserve the very education they are protesting for, and gladly privilege the in-group of learners at the expense of the rest of the class. This way many students are pressured to be in class even though they wish to join the protest.

But it’s not as simple a choice as “if you want the lecture, be at the lecture”. If attending a lecture means significantly jeopardising your ability to access any lectures in future years because you are effectively endorsing your own eviction notice, did you ever really have the ability to choose? Unless you presuppose that the decision to miss lectures and protest is morally wrong, there is no justification for lecturers and “good students” getting in the bus and leaving the rest of the children behind. Often compromise is possible, but the universities will always try to ditch the dead weight before accommodating the whole group. Disrupting tests and lectures is justified when it is the only way to force universities to uphold their end of the service contract by accommodating as many students as possible. After all, these students are going to be charged fully when the bill comes in the mail.

The Free-loader Problem

Even students who do not support protests benefit from successful protest action. Even the most ardent critics of #FeesMustFall2015 did not have to pay a fee increment in 2016. In fact, many of the students who do actually support protests selfishly choose to be in the in-group discussed above because they are sure that protests will continue without them.

Lectures are often disturbed on the premise that it is not fair for certain students to be prepared to sacrifice nothing but reap the rewards of the sacrifices made by the most desperate students. This is not unique to student protests. For instance, in the United States the law compels teachers who decide not to join public sector trade unions to still pay a basic “fair-share fee” to contribute towards the cost of effective collective bargaining. Unfortunately, even when used as a measure of last resort, protests have become one of the only mechanisms which make successful collective bargaining on behalf of students possible. In the States, fair-share fees are upheld despite complaints that this violates freedom of speech. It’s a contentious issue, and a difficult line to draw when various elites control the union’s agenda, but free-loaders are a genuine moral and practical concern.

What’s important is that the contributions we make to collective bargaining efforts will never be equal. We have different abilities and different costs for participating. Missing lectures can be a significant price to pay, but I assure you, protesters are aware of this – that’s why they resent you for making them carry this burden alone.

Better Conversation

The above arguments are not dependent on protesters being the majority, necessarily, but I recognise that the arguments are more persuasive when they are so. I do believe that in most cases protests are broadly representative of the student body’s desires. Much more representative than universities are prepared to admit.

The problem with majoritarianism, however, besides that it doesn’t really speak to the morality of various options, is that here majorities are very difficult to determine clearly. There are many students who identify with protesters’ aims but do not actively participate because they are afraid to get left behind by uncompromising academic programmes, because they are traumatised by police brutality in previous years, because they are selfishly free-loading, or even because their parents will not allow them to.

There are a host of factors which cloud such inquiries. What should be abundantly clear however, is that the cause of action is at least significant enough to genuinely engage the issues that protests raise. The “vanguardism” characterisation beloved by some, which suggests that protests and indeed national shutdowns are artificially conjured up by radical elites, is pure sophistry. People who promote this theory should not be allowed to speak in public.

A first step in taking these conversations more seriously would be to stop pretending that the conversation stops being important the second a single lecture gets disrupted. Such obstructionism harms everyone trying to make their minds up about whether or not to support the students’ demands. DM


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