Protesting students and conflict resolution models

Protesting NMMU students flee as police fire teargas at them. (PHOTO: Herald Live).

While on campus this week as part of a Christian ministry presence, I witnessed a power play when students supporting free higher education withstood management of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) and prevented them from accessing the administration block and restarting the academic program. It took police, who were there to enforce a court interdict restricting picketing to designated areas, to make a way through. And in the melee I got to experience again the dreaded smell of teargas. It was as if I was transported back to 1980’s where such incidences were a norm.

Many commentators are good at elucidating our current and contemporary challenges but very few have sufficiently familiarised themselves with the historical process and events that have brought us here. As a country we have gone through a lot and we need to improve on what we have inherited. But not everything needs to be replaced or fall in order for us to build an inclusive and cohesive society.

A 5th way
Norwegian Mathemetician and Peace Activist, Johan Galtung, says that there are four traditional but unsatisfactory ways in which conflicts between two parties are handled: 1. A wins, B loses;2. B wins, A loses;3. The solution is postponed because neither A nor B feels ready to end the conflict;4. A confused compromise is reached, which neither A nor B are happy with. Galtung proposes a 5th way: where both A and B feel that they win. The method also insists that basic human needs – such as survival, physical wellbeing, liberty, and identity – be respected.

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But some students are digging in their heels and vowing to shut down the university until all their demands are met. And so the standoff continues with no solution in sight. I suspect that a triumphalism mindset might be blinding some students. It does so to a degree that they fail to see that one day they will be standing on the side of management as future leaders facing off another generation of students.

The demands of that future generation are not known now. But their impressionable minds are already learning methods and modes of negotiation that will ensure that the current scenario becomes a permanency. The chaotic scenes that we regularly see in our parliament have certainly not helped in making a negotiated settlement an attractive proposition. They have rather given traction to the idea that militancy is more valuable than manners. Joel Modiri, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria expressed a concern this week that the increased media attention covering the student protests might be sidetracking students from their core mission.

He wrote the following in Daily Maverick: “And I do worry that the intoxicating gaze of the camera and increasing media attention may shift student protests more in the direction of public spectacles and choreographed theatrics, rather than slow contemplation and reflection.” Some media houses obviously favour a certain slant when they publish news and students might be unwittingly playing to this agenda.

Many of them abhor violence but they fail to uproot provocateurs among them. And it is the violent and destructive students who often attract the gaze of the media. I experienced first-hand how a few students with stones reduce a peaceful and noble cause into an orgy of violence. Some students take glee in the chaos by pelting police with stones and then hiding in bushes and populated areas. The result is that students not involved in the violence suffer needlessly.

For the first time this week I saw a South African National Defence Force helicopter hovering above students who were involved in running battles with police. The deployment of the army would undoubtedly please those would feel that police have lost control of this situation. But students are already scarred by the actions of the police and the presence of the army will make things worse. I pray that the court ordered mediation process will have the protagonists at NMMU find the 5th way proposed by Gatlung.

One Comment

  1. Hugh G Wetmore

    Wise words, and important insights. Thank you, Afrika.