A Christian response to student protests


[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]

PHOTO: Livemag.co.za

Two key moments stand out for me on the Sunday before the nationwide student protests engulfed our nation. In the afternoon at a church social event, after asking a Rhodes university student what her plans are for next year, she also told me how much of a struggle it had been to come here and see her degree through. Now, to her amazement, she is looking forward to the opportunity of studying further at another university next year. In the evening, I tuned in to SABC 3’s interview-based program, Interface. In the spotlight was none other than the celebrated Public Protector, Adv Thuli Madonsela, and her Deputy, Adv Kevin Malunga. Being interested in law and politics, I decided to listen further. While a lot of good things were said by both, one particular statement made by Adv Madonsela stood out. Analysing our past and present as a nation, she said words to this effect: “As a nation, we need to move to a culture where we use legal means to solve our problems.”

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Then Monday came. While the #feesmustfall protests presented a uniform message nationally, the expression of those protests differed from campus to campus. Some were a lot more peaceful than others. At my alma mater, Rhodes University, some students I knew joined in the protests, while others I knew were vilified, threatened and intimidated for not joining. The protest was preceded by an anonymous sms sent out to some students, urging them to gather together on the Sunday night, and begin the protest on Monday, but ‘not to tell the whites’ as they may let the secret out. Campus security did not interfere with students, whose form of protests included barricading every road in and out of the university, and students would prevent fellow students, lecturers, and even wardens with their families from driving in and out of the barricades. At the protest gatherings itself, some students I spoke to were dismayed at the lack of respect shown to authority figures present, while others saw the whole thing: protest marches, barricading of the roads, the intimidation of some and the preventing of non-protesting student and staff from continuing their studies, as a slight, ‘white’ and middle-class inconvenience for a necessary cause that would otherwise have been ‘impossible’ to fight for.

Honouring God
All of this begs the question: How should we as Christians respond to the current student protests? First and foremost, in all that we do, be it social issues or otherwise, we are to honour God and advance His Kingdom – the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt 22). If we do not put God at the centre of what we do, we are not worthy of the name, and our Christianity is merely a religion of convenience. It is on this basis that we bring our challenges and needs before Him. As Jesus declared in his teaching on how we ought to pray: Hallowed be Your Name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, and after that…give us this day our daily bread. The economic challenges behind the protests are very real issues that we do not want to minimise, and as the Church our very heart must be in sympathy for ‘the widow, the orphan, the poor and the alien’. The economic challenges faced by the majority of people in our nation are massive, of which access to education, including tertiary education is a significant one. Yet the decision as to how we express that must be informed first and foremost by our commitment to honour God, i.e. our methods need to be God-honouring.

A significant part of how we honour God is that we are to honour human authorities, be it the civil government, the family, and in this case the university: Paul’s letter to the Romans declares: Rom 13:1-2 1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. On this foundation of honouring God which includes honouring leaders and governments, we are to bring compassion to society and pursue and think of legal, God-honouring solutions to the crisis we face. These may include peaceful protests. However, what we cannot condone or support is the usurping of authority by some students who blockaded discrimination and hatred of those who are not part of “us”, the bullying and intimidation of non-protesting students, the denial of the right of others to study, and the denial of the right to peacefully disagree with students who are not in favour of the methods, timing, and/or the demands of the protest, regardless of how strongly we feel for the justice of the cause. Such a response bears no resemblance to the New Testament response of the Christian to injustice. Rather, as the New Testament and Church history teaches us, we can and, where our consciences direct us, must, speak out against injustice, but do so within the bounds of law, honouring the authorities and our fellow men who may or may not agree with us. The lawful, planned march that took place on Wednesday,  October 21, by and large seemed consistent with the values we purport to hold as believers. What then is the difference between a lawful march and taking the law into our own hands and controlling the campus, as some have done? Our honouring of God, authorities and our fellow men.  (Civil disobedience in the New Testament was employed solely when civil obedience would have meant disobedience to God, thus the apostles said “We must obey God rather than men.” This was an exception reserved for these specific conditions.)

Ends don’t justify means
Some have said that the only way that government and/or university management will listen is if we make the campus ‘ungovernable’. Nowhere do we find in Christ, and in his Word, a justification that ‘the end justifies the means’. Even in the dark days of apartheid, Desmond Tutu displayed that it is possible to live by these ideals while standing against an injustice. Firmly committed to Christian non-violence, he declared: We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose. We cannot afford to use methods of which we will be ashamed when we look back, when we say, ‘…we shouldn’t have done that…We will say, ‘We used methods that can stand the harsh scrutiny of history.’  As Romans declares: Rom 12:17,21 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil…21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. As Galatians 6 points out, what we sow, we will reap, not only as individuals, but as a nation: Gal 6:7-8 7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.   8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. If we truly love this nation, we cannot sow a seed that says that we can use whatever means to get what we want, and not face the consequences of that later.. As believers, we have to stand against the belief that we must take the law into our own hands to get what we want. Yet we are to work tirelessly for justice and reach out with compassion to the downtrodden among us.

As believers, regardless of our views, our first port of call must be prayer, as we acknowledge that change for the better begins and ends with God, not our government, university or anyone else, and that our first priority is to see His Kingdom come and will to be done, not ours. Proverbs 29:26 declares: Many seek an audience with a King, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice. As we pray together with believers of different opinions and ethnic groups, we come against a divisive spirit that would seek to destroy the unity we have in Christ, and we remind ourselves that our ultimate change agent and hope for justice is God himself before we look to any human being, government or institution.

Beyond prayer, what else can be done? We can and must hold government accountable on how it spends. Where necessary, we can lawfully and peacefully protest and seek other lawful ways of redress. We can choose another government if they are not leading with righteousness and justice.  (Though some protestors I spoke to would never entertain this idea, it should be quite logical that the best remedy for corrupt and inept political leadership is to remove them from office). Finally, if you truly want to be a real radical revolutionary, we must preach the Gospel more than ever. Darren Peacocke wrote the following: The Biblical response to poverty…is to call the poor into the Kingdom, disciple them to adopt the mental and moral attitudes of good stewards under God, and to train them with the skills to begin to create wealth themselves. Then, in the realm of politics, we need to challenge the popular, politically-correct rhetoric of entitlement. In a time of rampant immorality, William Wilberforce endeavoured to ‘make goodness fashionable’. We desperately need a similar voice in our day that will ‘make hard work fashionable,’ ‘make discipline fashionable,’ ‘make the-government-is-not-my-god-and-I-can-out-of-poverty fashionable.’

Next month’s article
(In next month’s article I will look at a bigger issue behind the protests, asking the question: do we want no fees at all, and what could that mean for our nation.)


  1. Margaret Ferguson

    I have written a long comment after Afrika Mlophe’s article which could be worth reading. Your comment about some students not accepting the idea that you can vote out leadership, shows a very limited understanding of democracy and plays into the hands of ‘dictatorship.’ Perhaps a good pathway would be for final year students to consider putting themselves forward as party political candidates next year.

  2. Hugh G Wetmore

    Well said! Thank you, Tendai, for a good Bible-based analysis. I have tried to examine these protests through Bible eyes, but also from the viewpoint of the majority who do not use the Bible. They use the SA Constitution. The Constitution itself supports the right to NON-VIOLENT protest. The wave of violence we’ve seen is UN-Constitutional, and the perpetrators ought to be arrested and tried. Though the police are scared of repeating a “Marikana”, the lawless ones are not scared of repeating the violence and killings that led to the “Marikana”. Experience has taught them that Protest Mob-Violence will eventually be rewarded with concessions and withdrawals of the charges. This has led to the oft-repeated justification: “Violence is the only language the State understands”. So they avoid the Legal Route which wise leaders wish to implement.

    South Africa is at a seriously low state when it is now necessary to invoke Court interdicts to stop the violent protests which the Constitution already declares as illegal.

    Those who barricade roads also infringe another Constitutional Right: The Right to Freedom of Movement. They tear down the gates of Parliament, but object to the police who try to remove their burning barricades. But they are not intelligent enough to see the irony of their actions.

    The “Freedom” which all revolutionaries fight for is a “Freedom” they are not willing to give to those who think differently to them. They want others to have the ‘freedom’ only to follow their dictates. When they intimidate those who do not want to barricade and burn, the show their true colours: They want a Dictatorship, not a Democracy. I agree with Margaret’s insight on this.

    Tendai quotes Romans 13:1,2, but does not go further to quote v4: “The Ruler is God’s servant for your good”. In a Democracy, Rulers who do not serve God by pursuing what He wants – the good of the people (especially the poor) – should be voted out: “We can choose another government if they are not leading with righteousness and justice.” Well said, Tendai!