Dr Rudi Buys

Student protests are endemic. 

Every year, during the first and third terms, many campuses are hotbeds of violence. 

During the first term students, as a rule, demand access to studies by protesting the fees required for registration and places in students housing. 

During the third term students contest elections for student representative councils by protesting perceived lack of representation in campus decision-making forums and of progress in institutional transformation. 

This year is no different. The recent protests at UWC and University of KwaZulu-Natal saw violent altercations between students and the police, buildings burned down and lectures disrupted and then cancelled, among other things. 

Two arguments underlie the two annual waves of student unrest. At the start of the year, the student movement argues for the basic human right and constitutionally entrenched right to education and the enabling environment to ensure student success – it’s about the future of a nation and its youth and doing justice to our hopes and dreams. 

During the elections for the SRC, the student movement argues for their voice to be recognised as core to the institutional programme for transformation. 

Sceptics of the role of the student movement raise doubts about the authentic intent of the student protests that roll across campuses during the first and third terms – they claim that student communities in general are the victims of suspect political agendas of student or youth leagues of political parties; protests to mobilise students as party-political agents, rather than activists for student engagement. 

While student movements to protest as a rule undoubtedly must contend with such influences, the #MustFall movements of the past years revealed a more critical dynamic at play then narrow interests – a societal and social dynamic that student movements represent in the healthy functioning of a constitutional democracy and open society. 

An open society invites and embraces the voices and narratives of diverse constituencies and citizens in formal and informal ways. 

It seeks silent voices with an attempt to empower active citizenship – an attempt to embrace diversity and a growing inclusivity of life stories and citizen experiences become the gold standard of a transforming society. 

At the same time as a constitutional democracy, our society opted for a particular storyline to represent our hopes and dreams as a nation – a country that it belongs to, and to whom all who live in it belong. 

As much as the story we tell through our Constitution of who we want to be as an inclusive nation, such a broad framework plays into the social hierarchies of stories that carry more or less merit; playing into hierarchies that promote some voices above others – hierarchies that determine a distance between a centre and a periphery. 

At the centre a master narrative determines how we make sense of the world, and at the periphery a counter-narrative disrupts the sense we make of our world and ourselves. 

Whereas our constitutional democracy sets the master narrative, an open society calls forth hidden voices to share counter-narrative. 

The one needs the other: a constitutional narrative to balance the singular interests, and an open society to prevent the single story that lacks nuance. Protest action by the student movement may well represent the counter-narrative of an open society, and campus systems a master narrative at the centre in higher education landscapes. 

This was the contribution of the #MustFall movements: to argue for a different narrative that transforms the legacies of history and challenges society to rethink its sense of self and the world. In contrast, violent protests that seek to destroy only succeed in making beds that burn. 

  • Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.
  • Published in the Cape Argus on Friday, 21 February 2020.
Cornerstone Institute
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