There’s a tragic-comic element to the #FeesMustFall protests playing itself out as the academic year comes to an end. A group of high-minded young adults appropriated to themselves the pursuit of a demand that they had almost no chance of achieving. They targeted institutions that could not meet their demand, even if they wanted to.
In the process the ‘Fallist’ student movement alienated most of the support they had garnered amongst the wider population by embarking on unlawful and increasingly criminal action to pursue their demand.
Even where the police acted incompetently or with excessive force, nothing derogates from the fact that almost nothing the students did was legal. The end never justifies the means no matter how often the student leaders say it does.
But the real problem was a student leadership was either too pumped up by the action or too emotionally wedded to its modus operandi and lack of knowledge or experience. They failed to develop a fallback position. There was no Plan B.
Negotiations failed either because they weren’t getting what they wanted or their demands kept changing. Anyone who is regularly involved in negotiation knows that part of the negotiation process includes ending negotiations when they are conducted in bad faith by the other side, which is what Wits eventually did.
The criminality that resulted either from desperation, something akin to sedition or from plain criminality, resulted in leaders being arrested and charged for criminal acts. This contributed to emasculating the leadership, even though the student leaders at all times averred that leadership was “collective” - a contradiction in terms made popular by the African National Congress.
So in a complete failure by the student leadership to take responsibility for its actions, certain students launched an interdict in the South Gauteng High Court on Tuesday 25 October 2016. The purpose? To put a stop to the writing of year end exams at Wits University.
Led by final year law student, Seadimo Tlale, they argued that the exams should either take place early next year or be deferred for two weeks.
Tlale argued students had been left with little time to prepare for the exams.
“If the examination were to continue on that date it would have the inevitable consequences that the vast majority of students will either fail (or substantially underachieve) or, to avoid that consequence, the university will have to impose a general increase in the marks of all students.”
Tlale insisted that students had been traumatised by the heavy police presence and violence across the campus since the protests began.
“Those who attend lectures are in constant fear for their wellbeing from both protesting students and police alike.”
The role of the police and the dissembling by the students’ movement is the subject of another article.
In his ruling Judge Willem van der Linde said that perspective on protest action was needed. He said that the Constitutional right to free speech should not encompass hate speech or inciting violence, and the right to demonstration was to be unarmed.
Van der Linde noted that while some students had exercised their rights, others had failed to do so peacefully and protect the Constitutional rights of others.
The students argued that the decision to continue with exams was irrational. Wits explained that not continuing with the academic year (by halting lectures and examinations) could have dire consequences. The academic year had already been extended by multiple weeks.
Wits insisted that students with genuine reasons for not being able to sit an exam can apply for the deferred exam. The judge held that the deferred exam program allowed enough flexibility for the students' issues.
Regarding the stress and anxiety felt by the applicants, Judge van der Linde said that Wits had acknowledged their circumstances and said such factors could be the basis of an exam deferment application at the university.
Prominent Wits EFF leader Cathrine Busisiwe Seabe, who has shown herself to be bright, articulate, but highly intolerant and arrogant towards those who do not share her views, said
"The discussion going forward is possibly boycotting exams.”
Seabe said students were also looking at different avenues including deference until January.
"It’s very disappointing and disheartening. The reality is students are traumatised and they are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from all the violence. It is an act of bad faith from the university. It shows that they don’t care about future of students. All we are asking for is more time to prepare.
"The academic programme ended last week. Many of students needed information which they did not get from these lectures. Students were being attacked from their own residencies; it’s not a conducive place to study."
Experienced adult advice to Ms Seabe would be that no one cares whether students boycott exams or not. They are adults and responsible for their own decision-making. The real world is a much tougher place than the island that is university life and nothing can be deferred.
Perhaps she might be struck one day that there actually was no act of bad faith on the part of Wits. Rather Seabe and her colleagues are responsible for the trauma and PSTD being suffered by others. They appropriated the right to sanctimoniously pursue a demand that could not be met which went horribly wrong.
Ms Seabe, take responsibility! Or as the Americans would say “Suck it up!”