"Society, media and leadership need to learn to hear the cries for social justice that continue to echo not just in the walls of universities but within South African communities at large so that they do not need to resort to violence to be heard."
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) stands in support of the call for fair, equitable and affordable higher education in South Africa and welcomes the 0% increase announced by the president. This however is a small victory within a larger battle for social justice. CSVR is alarmed by the government's initial nonchalant response to the students' grievances and drawing from its long-standing work on violence and its prevention, calls on the South African government to urgently consider the real issues for which students are fighting for. The struggle is not simply for zero fees, but for broader social justice.
CSVR observes that the trends we see in this campaign for zero fees are similar to those found in collective violence in our communities over a number of years. In the Smoke that Calls Report that explored the causes of collective violence, key lessons that emerged include:
1. The need to be heard: At the core of these nationwide protests are students who want their grievances and challenges to be heard after protracted exposure to socioeconomic exclusion. Our government needs to hear and see society as it is, with the harsh realities faced by ordinary South Africans, including the students, when it comes to socioeconomic struggles. CSVR's research found that only after years of peaceful protests and trying to get the leadership to hear them, communities resorted to violence as "the only language" that would be heard by government and the privileged sectors of our society. It is therefore important to consider what it is that make us HEAR in this country.
2. The role of leadership: Lack of leadership including delayed leadership response and inappropriate responses emerged as one of the factors that accelerate or decelerate collective violence during protests. Research in the communities highlighted that leadership tended to respond only when there was violence. And this response was often one that was dismissive or confrontational, often triggered more violence. There is an urgent need to train leadership on crowd communication skills that decelerates rather than accelerates violence. Leaders also need training on how to deal with the "emotional triggers" of crowds and how they could avoid aggravating volatile situations. Leadership in this instance includes not only government but also leadership in academic institutions and the police service. CSVR commends the leadership that has been displayed by the students where they neutralized potentially volatile and violent situations. We can learn how to develop leadership within communities from them.
3. The role of police: The police have also emerged as key factor in fueling violence through excessive use of force during protests. The hasty resort to force by the police in such protests is concerning. We call upon the South African government to guard against drifting towards a police state. CSVR is also concerned about the emotional state and the psychological readiness of the police to deal with the highly emotive nature of crowds. Our research suggests that police officers often approach crowds in "fight mode", focusing on crowd dispersal rather than crowd management or negotiations. Our police officers seem to view protesters as potential criminals rather than ordinary citizen fighting for their rights. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift within the police on their perception of protesters and their psychological preparedness in dealing with angry and frustrated crowds.
In considering some of the lessons highlighted in the collective violence research, CSVR recommends a different approach to dealing with the students' protests and notes that these nationwide protests need to be regarded as a wake-up call for South Africa and its leadership. CSVR hereby recommends the following approach in preventing further escalation of violence:
- The leadership must be first at the scene. We need to avoid resorting to police to control and clamp down on the voices of protest.
- We need to work on the emotional state and psychological readiness of the police to deal with the highly emotive nature of crowds.
- We also call on the police to take seriously to the findings of the Marikana Commission of Enquiry. The report gave very useful guidelines on how to police crowds in a way that does not fuel violence. The police reaction during the students' protests demonstrates a police service that has not learnt from the tragedy and is likely to repeat similar these horrendous mistakes.
"It is important that we do not only hear when there is violence but also when there is a peaceful expression of concern; the students' protests only received wide media coverage after the police violence in parliament, but there was limited coverage to the peaceful protest at Wits where it all started", says CSVR Executive Director, Nomfundo Mogapi.