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A Guide to University and Student Protesting

by Johann Harmse

Have you been part of a student or university protest? Have you ever wanted to, but were scared of the consequences? Here is Johann’s guide on how to go about student protesting.

In 2015, the long-extinguished energy of South African student protest was reignited in the streets and universities of this country.

In the past year, students have been pepper sprayed, shot at with rubber bullets, and arrested during weeks of national student protesting. During this #Feesmustfall protest, 30 students were arrested outside Parliament for trespassing and public violence. Six of these students were allegedly charged with provisional charges of treason, although these were not taken forward.

As a result, national government agreed to a 0% increase in university fees for 2016. The University of Cape Town has ended staff outsourcing, with the University of Johannesburg following suit. Stellenbosch University is in the process of changing its language policies, and Rhodes University is currently rebuilding its SRC.

But it’s not over. One very recent example is the recent student protests at Rhodes University. On the 20th of April, 5 students were arrested in Grahamstown during the #RUReferencelist protests that sought to address sexual violence on campus. Their charges included public violence, resisting arrest and obstructing a public road.

Seeing as student protests are such an ongoing topic, it’s important to know the dos and don’ts of student protesting, and how to best go about it if you want to get involved.

This guide is intended to help make your involvement in student protest, if you wish to take part, as safe and effective as possible.

Student Voices

Student protest has shown its potential for making positive change. And as long as students feel their demands are not being met, or there are important issues at hand that need attention, the option to protest is there. And it’s clear that in a country like ours, there are still many unresolved issues.

While important conversations need to be had, students may choose protests to amplify their voices through protesting. It is their right.

From a Legal Point of View

According to the South African Constitution,

“Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.”

Your right to protest will be protected under the Constitution as long as your behaviour is not malicious and you are unarmed. In other words, you are allowed to protest, but there are certain conditions that you need to meet.

What to Look Out for When You Protest

Let’s have a look at some charges that students faced during protests in the past year.

student protesting be aware_FotorTrespassing

Students were charged with ‘trespassing’ when they forcefully entered the gates of Parliament, a private government property. Entering a private space carries this risk.

Try to stay in public spaces, as it will also protect you from private security and the legal rights of property owners.

Public Violence & Resisting Arrest

‘Public violence’ and ‘resisting arrest’ are broad terms. To a degree, police officers use their own discretion in deciding which behaviour is violent, or what constitutes resisting arrest.

Because of this, try not to give police officers a reason to single you out, and try not to resist them when they engage you, even if this is counter-intuitive. Unless your rights are clearly being violated, of course.

Obstructing a Public Road

Students were charged with ‘obstructing a public road’ because they were protesting on a public road, thereby obstructing road users.

Simply put, do not obstruct traffic or any other public operations

What If it Gets Violent?

Although less than 40 students were arrested during protests, hundreds have been exposed to pepper gas and rubber bullets. While police are hesitant to use rubber bullets and traditionally fire them over the heads of crowds, pepper spray has been used consistently in both the #Feesmustfall and #RUReferencelist protests.

In these situations, dispersing is your only option. You can’t win against that kind of ammunition.

What to Do When You Get Pepper Sprayed

If you come in contact with pepper spray, protect your face with a wet cloth. Do not attempt to retrieve or kick pepper spray grenades. Also, water won’t help. Rinse your face with milk (which you should bring to protests, just in case…).

How to Win at Protesting

As has been widely celebrated, the recent student protests were successful in bringing world-wide awareness to the student fees crisis in South Africa, and the persistent efforts from student bodies all over the country did result in a 0% fee increase at all universities.

Many universities have been dedicating more attention and effort to address issues that were called out in the protests, including the need for transformation.

So, how was this accomplished?

Visibility & Size

The 0% fee increase following the 2015 #Feesmustfall protests was successful because of the visibility and size of the protests.

Through the extreme disruption of university programmes, the huge media coverage and civil unrest among students, the movement gained a momentum and visibility that required the President to personally address the concerns of students.

Protests work when people get behind them. Many people. High university fees was an issue that affected a large amount of people, and that’s why the protests grew big enough to make real change.

If you focus on issues that people can get behind and which affect a lot of people, the will and energy that you need to succeed will come in abundance.

When you have that in place, all you need is organisation.


UCT and UJ were able to end the outsourcing of its workers by continuing with protests beyond the #Feesmustfall movement.

Outsourcing is the process of contracting workers through private companies, instead of employing those workers directly. This makes workers more vulnerable to salary cuts and retrenchment, as well as the loss of benefits, pensions and the ability to find representation in worker’s unions.

Students and workers continued to protest after the 0% fee increase was announced, until ending outsourcing was achieved.

Continuing to apply pressure and making clear the importance of your cause will benefit you.

It must be said, however, that ending outsourcing at UCT and UJ is easier than achieving a national 0% fee increase. But these universities are a great example of where concerted effort on a small scale helps, as well as using a bigger protest as a platform for dealing with smaller issues.

Clear Goals & Media Exposure

Stellenbosch protestors helped draw attention to their campaign to remove Afrikaans as a primary language of instruction through clear goals and media exposure.

The documentary Luister (which explored the problems of Stellenbosch’s language policy), while not contributing directly to the revision, did help raise awareness and legitimise the protest in the minds of the public.

Protests work when there is a clear goal and your issues are made explicit. Don’t beat around the bush. Effectively communicating your goals and why you feel it is important will contribute to the legitimacy of your cause and make it easier for others to work with you.

The following video of the #RUreferencelist protest has been taken from TheHerald PE’s Youtube channel. The clip shows peaceful protests, and students who express clearly what their causes are.

Check the Ethics

The Rhodes protests that aimed to address sexual violence on campus were able to reconstruct elements of Student Representative Council (SRC), but the process was difficult, painful and inefficient.

High media visibility was achieved though the infamous RUreference list, where the names of alleged rapist were hung up in public. The law doesn’t condone the anonymous spreading of a defamatory list. Even though sometimes protesters may feel that they need to turn to ethically uncertain grounds, intimidation, and mistrust – it’s not okay. As a result of the protests, the SRC is being rebuilt, but the road was messy. Many people got hurt.

When you protest, be aware of the ethical implications, and the consequences of your actions on the lives of other people, in particular when you are about to publicly accuse them of horrible crimes.

To Sum it Up

  • Stay safe by staying within the constitutionally protected definition of protest.
  • Stay in public spaces, or the private space of your university.
  • Do not provoke or resist police officers, if possible. If you put up an ‘unnecessary’ fight you will almost certainly set a precedent for worse legal and personal treatment. This does of course not mean that you should allow your other rights to be violated.
  • Do not obstruct public roads or operations.
  • Protect yourself from potential pepper spray and rubber bullets.
  • Focus on issues that a large amount of people cares about and can get behind.
  • Concentrate your efforts and persevere.
  • Be organised.
  • Have clear goals and make your issues visible.
  • Take the moral high ground at all times.

What we can take from the recent protests is that with a clear, visible goal that is fought for with concerted effort, perseverance, and organisation, students have the ability to create real and positive changes in their own spaces – and for the greater good of future generations.

Be strong.

Be safe.

Aluta Continua.

EduConnect 2cents

It’s completely up to you whether or not you want to get involved with student politics. It’s also up to you to decide in which way you want to get involved. Do you want to join a march or strike? Do you want to write about it? Do you want to take photographs? There are many options, and they all contribute the the overall protest and the cause to which it draws attention. You can choose how and where to speak up.

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