Are the rights of some more equal than the rights of others?

February 2017 Editor's Choice, Integrated Solutions, Security Services & Risk Management, Education (Industry)

One striking feature of last year’s student protests is that they were organised beyond party and ideological divides, and the effective use of social media played a huge role in its effective mobilisation. It was this fact, more than any other, that brought thousands of students and their supporters onto the streets at Parliament, Cosatu House, the Union Buildings and marching on Cape Town International Airport. It was also this multi-class and multi-racial alliance that shook up the state and prompted it to be partially responsive to the students’ demands.

Chris Cobb, Kifaru Management Services.
Chris Cobb, Kifaru Management Services.

There is no doubt that the violence involved in many protests was in part facilitated by strands of the movement that deliberately adopted a strategy of violence. In part, this was prompted by interpretations of the writings of Frantz Fanon who was seen as an advocate of revolutionary violence. However, it is important to state that the vast majority of student protestors respected the boundaries of peaceful protest.

The flashpoints

The writing was on the wall as far back as Tuesday 10 January 2010 when UJ highlighted symptoms of how SA is struggling to meet demand for education among the poor.

• 20 people injured as thousands of students clamour for last-minute places.

• A woman crushed to death in a stampede.

• More than 180 000 prospective students turned away from the country’s top nine universities (UJ 74 000, KZN 61 500, Wits 30 000, FS 13 000, PTA 35 000, Tshwane 30 000, NMU 31 142, and UCT 26 000).

• 1st year places available (UJ 11 000, KwaZulu-Natal 9000, Wits 5500, FS 4000, PTA 13 000, Tshwane 8000, NMU 5472, and UCT 4000).

The violent student protests in South Africa began in the north at Tshwane University of Technology early in 2015 when students were prevented from registering because of outstanding fee debts. This was exacerbated by the inability of the state loan and bursary agency – the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) – to meet its commitments.

Confrontations spread to other campuses, taking different forms. Students at three universities in the south were next to act.

• At the University of Cape Town, students took issue with the legacy of colonialism, symbolised by the memorial to Cecil John Rhodes.

• Students at Stellenbosch distributed a powerfully evocative film – Luister (Listen) – that documented black students’ daily experiences of racism and discrimination.

• Students at the University of the Western Cape protested against levels of debt that would prevent them from graduating.

Dissent crystallised into a national movement in October 2015, when universities began to announce fee increases in excess of 10% for the 2016 academic year. The government, initially dismissive, was forced to impose a freeze on fee increases and find emergency funding to compensate universities for their loss of revenue.

Collectively, this became the largest student social movement since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994. It shook up the state, changed the systematic parameters, and began the process of transforming our higher education sector.

Yet, this united student movement fractured soon after President Zuma announced the zero percent fee increase for 2016. This was partially due to the natural process of the mainstream of the student body withdrawing and concentrating on completing the academic year after their immediate collective demand had been achieved.

Transformation moved to the heart of the national discourse through two sets of events: the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, emanating from two major challenges facing higher education: alienation and access.

The uprising has specific roots in apartheid and colonialism. But issues of race, identity, fees and unemployment are provoking unrest across the world where the propensity of violence manifested itself at it most extreme level as the protests wore on.

During the past two years, violence at South Africa’s universities has escalated:

• Malicious damage to statues, artworks and buildings.

• ‘Intentional provoked confrontations’ with campus security, staff and police.

• Preventing the distribution of food for students in residences.

• Attacks and assault with deadly weapons including knives.

• Burning of buildings and other assets.

• Sabotaging of critical infrastructure.

• Disruption of the academic programme.

• Evictions by means of intimidation of staff and students from lecture venues, offices, residences etc.

• Intimidation.

• Taking staff members as hostages.

• Burning and damaging private, outsourced vehicles and transport.

• Defacing property by means of graffiti, human faeces.

• Looting of shops, food outlets vendor machines.

• Theft of monies from POS, safes, vendor machines etc.

• Unlawful squatting in residences.

• Theft of university assets.

• Brutal clashes between different student factions.


Violence, where life safety was at risk, often compelled the institutions to call on the state to respond with non-lethal force in order to protect public property which resulted in creating a militarised atmosphere that worked against the immediate interests of the protestors and the legitimacy of the protests itself. Police were only called in once protestors had already resorted to arson and violence as the law states that a crime has to be committed and lodged with the SAP before they can respond.

Both open (part of the community) and closed universities are faced with a multitude of serious issues when attempting to address the security challenges around violent, protesting students. Six key activities typically need to be undertaken when dealing with student protests:

a. Controlling entry into a venue or event.

b. Monitoring and communicating on crowd and individual behaviour.

c. Dealing with potentially aggressive, abusive or violent behaviour.

d. Physically managing aggressive, abusive or violent behaviour.

e. Administering and coordinating ‘first response’ first aid or critical care.

f. Coordinating emergency evacuation of a venue or event.

But that’s not all. There are also a myriad other considerations:

• Effective and agreed upon, predefined Rules of Engagement to address the listed risks above ranging from students attempting to breach venues to disrupt classes and or exams, to preventing acts of arson etc.

• Rules of Engagement and a tiered crisis alert escalation guidelines need to be developed for:

o Command, control and incident management.

o Reporting levels of escalation.

o Assessing points intervention and level of intervention response .

o Identification of security lines and containment areas in crowd performance.

• Establishment of an effective Core Crisis Management Team and communication platforms to all – core crisis team, SAP POP, media, alumni, donors, council members, students, government, other external agencies (fire, traffic etc), academics, staff, other universities (legal teams etc.).

• Understanding crowd behaviour and crowd management in which campus protection services/SAP POP personnel focus on is the end phase, namely the dispersal.

• Key to planning should be the prevention of bad outcomes.

• Planning should focus on – ‘what are we trying to accomplish vs what others are seeking to accomplish?’

• It is important to understand aspects around crowd behaviour in that:

o Crowds are not homogeneous entities – all participants are not the same.

o Crowds are not made up of isolated individuals, but of ‘companion clusters’, which arrive, remain and leave together.

o Crowd participants are not unanimous in motives.

o Crowd participants do not necessarily assume a sense of anonymity.

o Crowds are not given to unique emotional displays.

o Crowd participants seldom act in unison and, if they do, it does not last long.

o Crowds do not cripple individual cognition.

o Crowds are more of a process – they have a beginning, middle and end.

o Crowds are not uniquely distinguished by violence.

• Effective infrastructure, deployment of technology (effective deployment of integrated VMS or PSIM enterprise solution with IP/digital cameras, LPR, electronic access control, vehicle and body cameras, intelligence gathering and unified communication solution into a command and control room to coordinate and manage first response capabilities.

• It is important that one considers adopting the crowd behaviour and crowd management – The Negotiation Model, where one avoids confrontation.

o Talk – tell university authorities what they want to accomplish and tell the protesting student/outsourced group leaders prepared to do/response to certain crowd behaviours.

o Be the initiator – experience has shown that ‘best practice’ is to initiate communication with student/outsourced protesting group leaders well in advance of a planned and known event.

Fundamental response considerations to student unrest

• Information and intelligence. Seek to know as much as one can about student/outsourced protest groups well in advance of an incident – provides warnings/insights.

• Continually assess. Assessment of protesting students goals compared to the goals of one’s university helps to understand and avoid potential conflicts.

• Consider points of intervention. For Individuals more effective to identify and target the individual(s) engaged in violent behaviour and to respond to that behaviour, rather than the crowd as whole.

• Tactics utilised in a particular situation will depend upon available resources and the situation itself.

• The decisions to use force and the force options that may be applied in response to incidents ranging from SAP POP enforcement presence to non-lethal force.

• ‘Less lethal’ force options such as pepper spray, paint ball gun rounds and other impact weapons should be defined and agreed upon and under what circumstances they may be deployed to disperse a crowd at the discretion of the overall commander.

• Negotiations should also be made from a position of strength.

• Whilst agreements might be reached, effective well-resourced contingencies should be developed in the event the agreement is violated.

• It is important to note that SAP and or tactical teams with full body armour etc played a significant role in either forestalling or provoking disorder.

In conclusion

Major concern is that protestors are so focused on their rights that they had forgotten their obligation to respect the rights of others. And while it is the goal of peaceful protest to create inconvenience and disruption, it is definitely illegitimate to violate the rights of others on such a wide scale.

So the question at large is how does one enable the evolution of a social movement for the legitimate struggle for affordable higher education, without allowing it to undermine and weaken the various institutional commitments to being a free and safe space for ideas, while balancing the competing interests and rights of a variety of stakeholders, including those within the student community who were intent on completing their academic year?

The message: avoid confrontation. It is a game you don’t want to play unless you have to:

– Crowd situations are highly unpredictable.

– One thing is certain, confrontation in most instances will likely cause crowd resistance – the ‘closed loop, negative feedback’ model.

For more information, contact Christopher Cobb, Kifaru Management Services, +27 (0)72 596 2621, [email protected]

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