The debate about the #FeesMustFall protests has failed to capture the plight of ordinary students trying to learn on securitised campuses. Much heat has been generated around the allegedly violent nature of student protest, but little has been said about the costs to students when the police are brought in. A recent court case illustrates these costs.
In November, 25 Wits students, supported by a petition of approximately 3,000 more students, urgently approached the South Gauteng High Court in search of some of the answers.
They asked for a two-week extension to the period which had been afforded them to prepare for their exams.
The students' case was not about the merits of the #FeesMustFall protests. It was not even about the correctness of the University's decision to invite police and private security onto campus, and impose stringent curfews, with all the obvious prejudice this caused.
The key issue before the court was whether, given the fact that the University had chosen to implement these interventions, the University was obliged to take measures to protect some of its most vulnerable students' rights to prepare properly for exams.
Much of the University's case centred on the difficulties it faces managing protests which it says have been marred by violence. But the University has consistently refused to acknowledge that the violence of the protest was dwarfed by the violence committed against innocent students by the police and private security guards brought in to quell the protests.
The devastating effects of the police and security presence on campus have been documented. Students who were attacked in their residences, told to go to sleep at absurd hours, and otherwise harassed by private security and police. Some students reported being questioned, tear-gassed and assaulted in their residences for no apparent reason. This was irrespective of whether they were actively involved in protesting or not. Indeed, some students only joined protest action after exposure to this type of harassment.
The students' application to court told a tale of under-preparation and psychological harm. They explained that the security measures implemented by the University, including the curfew, made it difficult for them to study in peace, to access study materials and facilities like libraries or to prepare themselves mentally for exams.
The court's judgment explicitly acknowledged the students' central complaint that the University's deployment of a police and private security presence on campus, and its introduction of a curfew "made for an atmosphere that was generally not conducive to learning, but particularly not to examination."
The worst prejudiced were poor black students. They are forced to live on campus, in subsidised accommodation – the major site of protest-related conflict – on shoestring budgets. They could not escape to the suburbs when the going got tough.
The students argued that Wits had not adequately considered whether they and their peers were academically and psychologically prepared to write exams. They felt that Wits was attempting to protect an appearance of "business as usual" to their detriment and in contravention with their constitutional rights.
Wits's response was that those who were not ready to write the main exams must simply apply for deferred examinations. But ignored the untenable implications of deferral for many students, which could not merely be regarded as "a second sitting". These implications include being disqualified from writing a supplementary exam and the necessity of finding supporting documents to prove that the events unfolding on campus rendered the students incapable of writing the main paper. Students felt it was unfair for the University to put them through all the hoops that regulate deferred examinations as if it was their collective fault that conditions on campus became tense and volatile.
Whilst the court application was in motion, the University conceded that it was prepared to relax some of the rules relating to deferred exams. It agreed, for example, not to show exam results as those of "deferred" exams on transcripts. In the end, the normal application requirements for deferred exams were applied extremely loosely, if at all, across most faculties. This was a significant achievement for the students, and those in whose interests they acted.
Crucially, the University also suspended the curfew.
Though these were major concessions, those students who chose to write the deferred exam would still have to vacate their residences and only return two days before exam. Many students simply lacked the resources to take the additional trips between the university and their far flung homes. They also argued that they would not have appropriate resources to study from off campus.
In the end the Court found that it did not have sufficient evidence before it to deal properly with the rationality of Wits' decision to persist with the exams two weeks notwithstanding its failure to address the complaints raised by the students. The students' application for an urgent interdict was therefore refused.
But nothing in the judgment gainsaid the students' legitimate concerns that their needs and aspirations were being ignored in a single-minded attempt to claim a successful "end" to the academic year, come what may. In fact, the court's judgment explicitly acknowledged the students' central complaint that the University's deployment of a police and private security presence on campus, and its introduction of a curfew "made for an atmosphere that was generally not conducive to learning, but particularly not to examination."
The #FeeMustFall protests are bound to continue with Wits this week having announced an 8% fee increase for 2017. This increase was immediately rejected by the Wits SRC. Wits, and other Universities across the country must get better at planning for them, responding proportionately to them, and engaging compassionately with those caught in the cross-fire when the police and private security are called in.