14 June 2018

Battle Still Rages For #FeesMustFall Activists

SAHA has come together with other civil society organisations to support the ongoing struggles of student activists in the #FeesMustFall campaign. Technically speaking, fees may have fallen, but the struggles that some activists have experienced as a result of being involved in the campaign are still ongoing. Several months, even years, after the protests, there are a number of disturbing issues which have been left unattended. Sadly, the discourse around #FeesMustFall may have moved on while the activists are left to languish in trauma and shocking consequence of their participation in the #FeesMustFall. Together, with other civil society organisations there is a campaign to advocate for the freeing of incarcerated or awaiting trail activists and bring awareness to the struggles that they have been facing since the protests.

The aim of the campaign is to ensure that the lives of the student activists are able to continue and are not permanently ruined as a result of the protests. Amongst many other things, the campaign proposes that dropping charges against the student activists will liberate them and allow them move on with their lives. The criminal charges against the students have had adverse effects on them and their abilities to study or secure employment. Some of the student leaders are still struggling with awaiting trial, three years after the protests, their lives placed on hold in uncertainty. Furthermore, the law is still undecided on what a legitimate protest is. The protests raise important legal questions of what constitutes a protest and what is a lawful arrest. Whilst these are exciting questions for the legal minds, the lack of clarity has also caused hardships and injustice for the students who are caught up in the system.

A disturbing feature of the ongoing trials seem to be centred on what can otherwise be termed the criminalisation of students, because the court system appears bent on sentencing the students rather than rehabilitation and restitution. These arrests have subjected helpless students to long litigious procedures, forcing them to miss lectures and tests ensuring that they are forever behind their peers. The stories that come out of the trenches of the student struggle are disturbing. One of the students complained that she was arrested while studying for her exams, this inevitably forcing her to fall behind. Other students have also made complaints about false, conflicting statements and allegations made against them by the police. It would seem that the system is bent on punishing the students rather than achieving actual justice.

The civil society collective objects to such discrimination levelled against the student activists and serves as a voice through which their woes can be heard. Currently, the number of students awaiting and facing trial within the criminal justice system is unknown. There is lack of clarity as the ongoing process makes it a little more difficult for those who are willing to assist to reach the students. Even though the silent response of the NPA has not helped matters, the campaign organisers hope that the NPA's attention will be drawn to the plight of the students. Many organisations have taken up the mantle to assist #FeesMustFall activists. Recently the Legal Resources Centre helped secure the release of 23 students of the University Western Cape and ensured that the criminal charges levied against these students were dropped. This is a clear indication that with access to adequate legal support, many of the students would have their charges dropped.
The aims of #FeesMustFall movements were to bring an end to educational exclusion that relegated black people to a life of poverty as they could not afford higher education. Sadly those in power, backed by the media have succeeded in painting the #FeesMustFall in a negative light. The Fallist movement is now perceived as a group of rebels without a genuine cause and viewed as some sort of public disturbance and nuisance. These misconceived notions and ignorant conclusions have detracted from the main message. The message of the Fallists was clear, South Africa belongs to all who live in it and education is the passage through which all can begin to enjoy the riches of the land.
As a part of the civil society collective, SAHA has made several PAIA requests to the Department of Justice, the South African Police Services and various higher learning institutions. To see more of the requests, please visit the FOIP website.