For the past five days, students at the University of the Witwatersrand have embarked on protests over their grievances about the financial exclusion of students at the University. On Wednesday, 10 March, students staged a protest in Braamfontein, on Jorissen, De Korte and De Beer streets.
Members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) responded violently to the protests, resorting to firing rubber bullets, using water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the protesting students. We have learned that numerous people have been gravely injured and that a number of students have been arrested. We have also recently learned that one person has been killed and for this we extend our deepest condolences to their family and loved ones.
SERI condemns this reckless use of force by the police. SERI is also deeply disturbed by the repeated failure, on the part of the police, to understand that the right to peaceful assembly is a constitutionally protected right that they have a duty to defend and facilitate. An immediate dispersal of peaceful protest without the necessary engagement and negotiation with protestors is unwarranted and misguided. The police have an obligation to communicate effectively, negotiate in good faith and de-escalate tensions.
Maintaining “public order” in the context of protest action requires the police to exercise restraint with the objective of facilitating the right to protest while ensuring the safety of protestors and non-protesting members of the public. Where the use of force is unavoidable, the police have a duty to ensure that its use is exercised in line with international human rights law and principles. This holds that any use of force by the police must be exercised in line with the principles of precaution, necessity, proportionality, legality and that the police will be accountable for whatever force that is exercised, particularly where there are injuries or deaths.
In past student protests, we found that the unlawful use of force by the police in 2016 left numerous people with long-term injuries, none of which the SAPS has been held accountable for. Police often resorted to firing at protestors who posed no real threat to people or property and they also carried out numerous arbitrary and unnecessary arrests. According to Viewfinder’s analysis of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s (IPID) data, since 2012, police have killed people in more than 70 crowd management incidents, which include strike and protest action. We are disappointed to see the past repeating itself in this tragic way.
We call on the Minister of Police to exercise decisive leadership during this time, instructing the police officers on the ground to adhere to the rule of law and to respond to the protests in a manner that minimises harm and de-escalates conflict. We call on the Minister also to denounce this misuse of the criminal justice system and the unlawful use of force to stifle protest.
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