What sort of society do we want?
Thousands of young people have had another day of lectures wiped from their academic schedule. Their plans keep having to change. Important tests are being cancelled at the last minute. They don’t know when their schedules will resume.
This is because a minority of students have cajoled, insulted, threatened and assaulted other students and staff in support of their demands.
These students have destroyed university property in support of their demands. This has gone on country-wide for 18 months.
It is time that the adults in society, namely, those who have passed the age of studying whether they had the opportunity to study or not, take control.
We can have a society governed by the principles in our constitution which affirm the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.
We can have a society where everyone has the right to have their dignity respected and protected. What these students who demand outcomes do not appear to understand, is that the affirmation of rights and dignity ebb and flow. These rights cannot be provided to every person at every moment all the time.
They are not rights that can ultimately be adjudicated by the individual who wants the benefit of the rights. The sense of entitlement that pervades this society is going to destroy it. Not even the most privileged can retain their privilege without having to work for it.
In the article “The colliding of the American mind: University protesters believe they are fighting for justice; their critics think free speech is imperiled” June 4th 2016, The Economist said that “….to function, society relies on impartial adjudication of wrongs, especially in an era of multiculturalism, with its attendant frictions. Prejudice may indeed abound, but for officials to intervene it must be proven, not merely alleged. In any case, the idea that any group’s experience is inaccessible to others is not just pessimistic but anti-intellectual: history, anthropology, literature and many other fields of inquiry are premised on the faith that different sorts of people can, in fact, understand each other.”
And that is the nub of it: institutions have to be recognised by the public as having authority in society whether they be courts, parliaments, standing committees, universities or schools. Societies cannot function if every individual in society can pick and choose which institutions he or she will recognise. Society will literally grind to a halt.
As parents of children who have the privilege, and yes it is a privilege, to be amongst the very tiny minority who accesses tertiary institutions, we need to ask whether these students who are our children haven’t become spoilt, self-indulged and self-pitying. They think they have a right to be self-appointed societal leaders with neither the mandate nor the knowledge to deserve this position. The rest of us have to be appointed or elected to our positions.
It matters not whether their cause is justified or illegitimate or good or bad or warranted or not. The only right that these students have is to make a demand. But they have no right to have their demands met. They would only be so entitled if they are demanding the performance of a denied a legal right.
As things stand there is no legal right to free tertiary education. This can be argued whichever way: it should be; it shouldn’t be; it should but with conditions. At present the Commission on Higher Education South Africa is looking into the issue and should be finished with its brief by June 2017. For many this is too long. Many students are in very difficult financial straits.
But universities cannot afford no increase in fees let alone no fees at all. Most universities are on the verge of bankruptcy. Tertiary education is expensive but if we want a vibrant economy we need tertiary educated people. We also need honest government that improves the economy rather than destroying it.
So students can demand free education but they have no right to get it. They have no legal right to be given their every desire.
In pressing for their demands, however, they are not allowed to:
Inhibit or prohibit access to university premises by others;
Demand access to a venue (say, the Wits Great Hall) - it is everybody’s venue, not theirs alone.
They are not entitled to stone security and police to get access to the venue. They must meet on the grass, or off campus, or not at all.
They may not disrupt classes, tests or exams. They may not shout and scream at the lecturers or students. They may not tear up test papers.
They may not interrupt laboratory experiments which may endanger those in the labs.
They may not threaten people or assault them or sjambok them.
They may not force unwilling students or staff to join their protests.
They have no right to disrupt debates and talks, and prevent the views of anyone other than themselves from being expressed.
They have no right to disrupt management meetings, stand on tables and insult adults.
These students disgrace themselves, given that many older South Africans never had the privilege or opportunity to go to university or even school.
We can accept that these students are the children of a malevolent Generation Snowflake that takes offence at any opinion other than their own, who believe they can talk to their elders and betters however they wish, and who can get whatever they demand.
Or we can say to these children that enough is enough. They are not allowed to behave like this. They have neither the knowledge nor experience to have earned this sense of entitlement. They are ill-mannered and rude. We do not accept this behaviour from them.
We expect our children to be grateful, to be humble for the privilege and right to receive such education, and to work damned hard to graduate. They must not expect sympathy when they actively seek to provoke police and security, and then complain of harassment when that provocation succeeds.
They are on their own.
Sara Gon is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations.