Which rights have been eroded at campuses?
The erosion of freedoms by ‘progressive’ movements at universities (including Fallism) is truly ominous. It is not least because it contravenes the Constitution. Understanding this puts into perspective just what is at stake.
The preamble to South Africa’s Bill of Rights describes it as ‘a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa’ which ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom’.
This makes clear that the Constitution protects the rights of all people. It does not exclude from protection whites, men, classical liberals or anyone else. It affirms the dignity, equality and freedom of all.
Public universities are ‘organs of state’, which are institutions that exercise a power or function in terms of the Constitution or that perform a public function in terms of legislation (Section 239).
Consequently, our universities are bound by Section 8 (Application) which provides that all organs of state (including universities) are bound by the constitutional obligations that apply to the State.
Fundamental rights that apply to all and have been eroded at our universities are the right to equality before the law (Section 9), the right to have one’s dignity respected and protected (Section15), and the right to freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion.
The most significant freedom to have been eroded – thus eroding the above rights – is freedom of expression, including freedom of speech, which the constitution sets out, unambiguously, in Section 16:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes
(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
During the Fallist period and since, students who do not support the prevailing leftist orthodoxy have been discouraged from, threatened for or have become fearful of expressing their views and hearing the views of others.
Students representing the new orthodoxy adopted the if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us position. This position was expressed increasingly aggressively. A contradiction developed where, on the one hand, ‘progressive’ students demanded ‘safe spaces’ in which to have their views expressed and heard without being offended, while, on the other hand, the right of students to express opposing views was to vehemently rejected, as opposing views came to be considered as ‘violence’. ‘Safe spaces’ for some became very unsafe for others.
However, freedom of expression isn’t protected under the constitution if it incites ‘imminent violence’ or ‘advocates hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and constitutes incitement to cause harm’. Much of the speech on campuses would be considered unprotected speech in terms of the Constitution.
Invasions of or rebellions in lecture theatres by Fallist students cowed other students who were reluctant to express views in case it led to a barrage of verbal and physical attack from the invaders. At UCT, two security officers were attacked by protesters and sustained significant injuries. Both were admitted to hospital.1.
The most notorious example of university management eroding freedom of expression was UCT’s 2016 revocation of an invitation to Flemming Rose, the Danish editor of the ‘Mohammed cartoons’. Former vice-chancellor Dr. Max Price overrode the decision of the Academic Freedom Committee, host of the event. The withdrawal of the invitation was based on three grounds; one, the most Kafkaesque of all, was that it would retard rather than advance academic freedom.2.
This process of disinviting speakers or ‘no platforming’ them (preventing them from speaking) has become a severely intolerant yet common form of prohibiting the expression of different views. In America, it has become a plague.
Freedom of artistic creativity at UCT is a matter of ongoing dispute concerning the works of art removed for safekeeping after the vandalism of #Shackville movement of 2016 at UCT.
Works of art have been covered, boarded up, removed or disappeared for alleged ideological purposes; management denies that this amounts to censorship.3. In an Orwellian twist, a UCT official tried to defend this: “Some may think the work is being censored, others – we would hope – will understand that a temporary restriction of view makes for another mode of seeing the work, less flat and obvious, more thoughtful and imaginative. So the exercise should be read as an essay in creative curation, and strictly part of the dynamic process of engagement underway.” The derided notion of ‘alternative facts’ springs to mind.
In 2015, after the removal of the Rhodes statue, UCT’s Council set up an Artworks Task Team of staff and students ‘to deal with transformation issues giving attention to questions of inclusivity and the University’s location in an African context as the basis of its work’. The Task Team isn’t involved with curating in order to refresh displays.
One of the most contentious works, Willie Bester’s sculpture of Saartjie Baartman, was covered up and then moved to an exhibition and has not been seen since.3
A Works of Art Committee (WOAC) was formed in late 2017 to develop clear curatorial policy guidelines ‘informed by the contexts of the university’s public spaces and developing an acquisitions policy’. It will establish an art museum for the university’s collection and create a platform for ‘engagement through ongoing curated exhibitions of the collection’.
A few of the destroyed works, including a triptych of Nelson Mandela, have been replaced by entirely anodyne art. This does not augur well.
The right to protest (Section 17) is demanded all the time in our society. However, this right is not absolute. There are at least two limitations:
- The right only extends to protests that are peaceful and unarmed (Section 17); and
- Is subject to Section 12 which provides that everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, including the right to bodily and psychological integrity.
Rampaging groups of protesting students presented a real risk of damage or harm. So universities were obliged to try to protect those not protesting by calling police and security onto the campuses.
Some ‘progressive’ academics, who supported the students’ causes or even their unlawful actions, objected to these measures as ‘securitisation of the campuses’ and impediments to protesting, making the implementing of security measures falsely analogous to the apartheid era. This was notwithstanding that much of the students’ behaviour was criminal – assault, attempted murder, arson, locking people in burning buildings, petrol bombing offices and jumping onto a desk with a sjambok.
Despite what these academics said, a primary obligation of the state (and by extension a university) in a democratic society is to protect its citizens. The right to protest does not include the right to do so unlawfully. It’s not just a university’s right to call on the police: it is its duty. It is also a precondition for a minimally functioning academic environment.
Stifling freedom of expression has extended to the writing of papers or exams. Students have learnt which academics hold staunchly ‘progressive’ views and wouldn’t tolerate alternative views.
Instead of being judged on the merits and quality of their arguments, on occasion students have produced work to satisfy academics’ political views, rather than take the risk that marks would suffer because of intolerance by an academic driven by ideology.
Academics play a significant role in shaping the opinions of students. With the increase in social justice ideology, academics have had a huge impact on the development of identity politics and the victimhood culture in students and against classical liberal thought.
These events have had a stifling effect on otherwise courageous students who are prepared to exercise their rights but do not feel that the administration would support them.
‘It is a dangerous notion that a group of people, possibly with good intentions, can decide whether another group or person’s rights are worthy of being respected. It is even more dangerous when an undemocratically elected leadership of a student protest has the power.’4.
The growth of ’social justice’ ideology on our campuses ironically demands the erosion of rights and freedoms.
‘It shows that pursuant to so-called “social justice” there is absolutely no ideological impediment in limiting others’ rights to achieve their societal goals, and that is very dangerous territory.’5.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the fourth of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Politics: Security officers hospitalised after Fallist attack - UCT, Politicsweb, 19 October 2016;
2. Gwen Ngwenya: Op-Ed: Why the IRR has decided to invite Flemming Rose,
Daily Maverick, 5 May 2017;
3. Elisa Galgut & William Daniels: The Art of Bullshit at UCT, Politicsweb, 1 November 2018;
4. Johan van der Merwe: Whose Rights are Right? published in Fallism - One Year of Rational Commentary, edited by Martin van Staden, Nicholas Woode-Smith and Nicolai Haussamer, published by Rational Publications 2017, Cape Town, South Africa;