Divisive days at University of the Free State

By Monday the 22nd of February, students and maintenance staff at the University of the Free State had been engaged in daily peaceful protests for almost a week. While ostensibly and immediately concerned with opposing the outsourcing of blue-collar university workers, the protests were rooted in the wider context of the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement which has swept through South African universities since last October. The aims of the movement are complex and diverse but are primarily concerned with the prohibitive cost of university tuition, outsourcing, and a lack of meaningful institutional transformation. Seeking to capture the attention of the university administration, protesters stormed the field at a UFS rugby match that the Vice-Chancellor was known to be attending. What followed was an ugly confrontation between (predominantly black) protesters, (predominantly white) rugby fans, and before long, campus security and police.

The situation rapidly descended into violence; chaos, fear and hostility would reign for the duration of the week. The main campus was put on lockdown, with strict access granted only to certain members of the university community. By the end of the week, over forty arrests had been made, numerous university assets had been vandalised, and Public Order Police and private security were patrolling campus in order to ensure peace.


Canon Collins scholar and student of Constitutional Law at the University of the Free State, Christopher Rawson, provides an analysis of the historical underpinnings of racial tensions at UFS, questions the legality of the means and methods by which protesters were apprehended by police, and ponders the future trajectory of the institution.


There were overt displays of racial tension and hostility during the recent protests and violence at the University of the Free State. Does the history of the institution contribute to the current malaise?

There are various important contextual facts surrounding the history and contemporary social order of the University of the Free State that are paramount to understanding the current complex situation. UFS was founded by the National Party under the apartheid regime as an Afrikaans language university specialising in law. Physical evidence of this legacy endures; statues of apartheid and pre-apartheid leaders are dotted around campus, many student residences are overwhelmingly racially homogenous, and a large proportion of the lecturing staff remain white Afrikaans speakers. Lectures are separated along linguistic, and therefore largely racial, lines, with a majority of black students attending classes in English while the majority of white students attend classes taught through Afrikaans.

UFS is situated in Bloemfontein, a city which bears some of the starkest evidence of the modern effects of the Group Areas Act and other segregationist apartheid projects. Just outside of Bloemfontein, you will find disadvantaged Black and Coloured townships, still significantly poorer than the predominantly white areas of the inner city. Members of these low-income communities around Bloemfontein work and study at UFS.


Are inequalities still visible on campus?

The University is actually one of the cheapest, and most demographically representative higher education institutions in South Africa, but only in terms of the make-up of the student body. As is the case nationally, the wealth and authority lies with a small minority, while the majority tenuously participate in institutions that were never created to include them. The narrative of many of the students and staff of colour is similar to what would have been experienced in the past, one of feeling unwelcome in the institutional space. This is partially due to the ongoing dominance of what is seen as exclusive Afrikaner culture and also the perception that the complaints of those outside the Afrikaner fold are not given proper cognisance or validation. There are also less tangible grievances concerning subliminal expressions of inferiority and superiority, which deliver invisible punches to the dignity of many students on a daily basis.


What is the legal context surrounding the violent treatment of protesting students and university workers?

The old adage that violence begets more violence is truer now than it has ever been in the past. With Public Order Police and private security roaming campus, students now find themselves facing down riot shields and shotguns.

Police have been accused of using incitement tactics and punitive action against specific protesters. This complaint stems from rumours and reports that the police specifically targeted certain individuals who had been identified by the university as student activists. In the weeks prior to this incident, a number of student activists had been deregistered and dismissed, without any prior warning or due process.

One of the fundamental legal questions surrounding the incidents at UFS is the authorisation of police force. One of the authorising documents was an interdict the university purported to have obtained against the protesters. However, the interdict had actually been obtained more than a month earlier, citing a student organisation as respondents, against the threat of protests for the Fees Must Fall movement. The very same interdict was dubiously used to arrest and charge workers who were protesting for a living wage and employment benefits.

Another charge against both the workers and the students who had been protesting was one of illegal gathering, invoking the 1993 Regulation of Gatherings Act which, drafted in the dying days of apartheid, places many restrictive provisions on the constitutional right to protest. Here again, the identified leaders felt a greater brunt of the punitive force, as they were separately charged with offences in terms of another piece of apartheid legislation, the 1982 Internal Security Act.


What is the way forward for an institution like the University of the Free State?

It is important to note that universities cannot, and should never be isolated from wider social problems existing in the country at large. As hubs of discussion and progress, universities are in an excellent position to challenge the status quo and pose innovative solutions to systematic societal failings. In South Africa specifically, the mounting protests highlight government failures to mitigate the massive economic inequality that still permeates the everyday lives of ordinary South Africans. Until these issues are tackled head on by the powers that be, the clash between the old South Africa and the new will continue to manifest itself in institutional hotbeds such as the University of the Free State with no immediate resolution in sight.