08 June 2022 | Story Rulanzen Martin | Photo Pexels
Student protest has been a hot topic on many campuses across the country.

The University of the Free State (UFS) Faculty of the Humanities provided the platform for a robust dialogue on student protests in South Africa. The round-table discussion, titled ‘Humanistic Perspectives on Student Protests in South Africa’, took place on 30 May 2022, with an impressive panel drawn from the Humanities, senior management of the UFS, and student governance.  

Vice-Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities Prof Chitja Twala said the faculty thought it prudent to lead this discussion by hosting a round-table talk. “Student protest will be with us for some time, and we need to engage and talk about these issues from a humanistic point of view – it is important for us,” he said.

“It is only when we dialogue and engage with each other that we can meet each other halfway and understand the problems students are faced with, and students can understand the problems institutions of higher learning are faced with.”  

The dialogue was an opportunity to discuss humanistic perspectives on student protests and included the following topics, among others: dynamics of student protests, the relationship between politics and protests, why protests are a challenge for the higher education sector, and the possible responses to protests by universities. 

“We wanted an academic experience and we wanted to give a sense of the different kind of angles when looking at protest, and we have not even scratched the surface,” said Prof Heidi Hudson, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities. 

* Listen to the discussion on the podcast recording below to gain insights from the six speakers. 

Protesting is important in addressing issues

Panellist Prof Sethulego Matebesi, who is an expert on community protests, said protesting is the main modality of expression for social movements in South Africa. He also said that protesting is a key element to celebrate, because people now have the right to protest. 

Student Governance Manager Motlogeloa Moema agreed that protest is important and is not something to be frowned upon. “Protesting is a reaction and a manifestation of grievances that have not been addressed, both in the community and institutions of higher learning,” Moema said. He added that it needs to be acknowledged that protesting is not a bad thing, and that it is “a democratic right enshrined in our Constitution”. 

These sentiments tied in with those of UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Francis Petersen, who said that protesting campaigns like the #RhodesMustFall and subsequent #FeesMustFall movements addressed certain issues and were actually helping to resolve and address the issues at hand. “Some of these are not resolved, but the role protest plays is quite critical.” 

Management must ensure stakeholder safety

Prof Petersen aimed to contextualise student protests from the viewpoint of the university management team. He said the UFS is home to both students and staff, and management’s mandate is to ensure that everyone feels welcome and can reach their maximum potential in an enabling environment. “The formal structures must facilitate and ensure that staff and students do what they are here to do,” Prof Petersen said. 

“The question is how that protest is being conducted, as there are rules for protesting; in fact the Constitution tries to assist and guide us on how protest should be conducted,” Prof Petersen said. “Protesting is a constitutional right, and we respect that right at the UFS.”

Student equivalent of dialogue planned

The Division of Student Affairs plans to host a student equivalent of this dialogue in the second semester. “This discussion was to get the perspective from academics, and then we will get the student perspective,” Moema said.

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