Let expelled students study – but they need to atone first

Ideas

Let expelled students study – but they need to atone first

But, given the arrogance of the Fees Must Fall protesters, I am not optimistic this will happen

Columnist


I agree with the party of Julius Malema that the students expelled from university or awaiting criminal charges in the courts should be allowed to return to studies.
These are students criminally charged for their actions during the Fees Must Fall protests of 2015-16. Unlike Malema’s colleagues, however, I do not believe that the return to studies must be unconditional.
To begin with, the courts should hear and decide on each of the criminal cases independent of political interference. When politicians in parliament believe they can demand that charges that belong with the judiciary be overturned, then we are flirting with danger when it comes to democracy, the independence of our institutions, and the rule of law.
Individual universities have indeed allowed some students awaiting an appearance or decisions from the courts to continue studies – that is within the jurisdiction of institutions. But they are not usurping the authority of the criminal justice system which must still rule on the student cases.
What is at stake in this heated debate on the fate of these students is much more troubling. Society is being asked to view these violent actions as noble, the work of freedom fighters akin to the great Nelson Mandela whom the one moment was labelled a terrorist and the next moment was lauded across the world as an exemplary statesman. This, at least, is the reasoning of some leaders of the black opposition in parliament.
There are all kinds of problems with such an analysis.
First, Mandela was fighting the apartheid state that kept in place an evil system bent on murdering its opponents. This is a constitutional democracy installed by the people of SA with rights, freedoms and recourse to justice available to every citizen – including the right to protest.
Whatever the problems of our government – and there are many – this is not a lawless state that sanctions violence to achieve one’s goals or that threatens human lives in the pursuit of one’s cause.
While the broad student movement and its quest for access and inclusion were indeed noble, in my view, there were criminal acts performed by individuals that must be held to account or SA descends into a completely lawless society.
Some would argue that given the newly released crime statistics (57 people on average are murdered every day in our country) that we are well on our way to such a perilous state where the increase in robbery, murder, home invasions and sexual assault erode our confidence in the government.
With the passage of time, we tend to forget what happened during those two years of unprecedented violence in our public universities. A contract worker did in fact die at Wits University in the course of the protests. Two campus security guards were locked inside a building as it was set alight at the Cape University of Technology. A petrol bomb was lobbed into the office of the UCT vice-chancellor who was also punched by one of the protesters.
Students and staff were traumatised by some of the more violent actions of other students but also of police and security personnel.  And places of learning, from computer labs to residence halls to libraries, were set alight and destroyed to the tune of R800m as violence descended on campuses across the country.
If every criminal act, from whatever quarter, is suddenly forgotten and the students who stand accused are hailed as heroes, then we are in very, very dangerous territory, for then the impunity in general society would have been sanctioned also in places of higher learning.
A better way
There is, however, a way out of this conundrum and this is the condition under which students could be returned to campuses to continue their studies.
With proper leadership, this moment allows for a national conversation that hopefully leads to a process of reconciliation with the affected students, universities and the broader public. This would in the first instance require openness, honesty and reflection from both affected students and their institutions.
More than that, it would require remorse, apology and some form of compensation for the damage done.
Sadly, I am not optimistic. There is an arrogance among affected students, a warped thinking that stubbornly equates post-apartheid criminality with the struggle to end apartheid. Here, UCT is a cautionary note: the management was clearly “played” by students in their public reconciliation process where there was no intention of pursuing reconciliation to begin with.
It is a pity that we seem stuck,  for if the current standoff continues it means we would have lost an opportunity to learn, to reflect, to acknowledge and to reconcile seemingly incommensurate positions. Whether we like it or not, that capacity for reconciliation is part of who we are as South Africans. It can still work.

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