This is a South African case that looks at how students engaged in protesting over accommodation and safety concerns.
Problems and Purpose
On the 24th of April, there was a huge gathering of students in front of the newly constructed Unibell student quarters, where they discussed some of their problems (Nene, 2023). Prior to the protest, the student representative council and the administration of the university engaged in a wide range of debates around security and accommodations issues (Nene, 2023). EFF Student Command chairperson Siyabonga Sgudla said student residences were dilapidated and decaying and that no measures were being put in place to protect the safety of students (Nene, 2023). There were two main issues highlighted during the student protest at UWC. The first was the lack of water supply and WiFi connection issues during load shedding (Nene, 2023). Secondly, students reported that they were getting mugged each and every day, and nothing is being done to address that particular concern (Nene, 2023). Students wanted the university to provide shuttle services for students to and from campus (Nene, 2023).
The case looks specifically at the student protest as a form of youth participation and is important to cover as it could encourage young people to participate in deepening democratic practices by engaging in future peaceful protests. Youth is defined in this case as those between the ages of 18 and 35. The student protest of safety and accommodation issues is significant as it not only shows the importance of students participating in formal deliberation practices, but also emphasises the need for students to physically demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the university through protests. Gaventa and Barrett (2010) consider accountability to be a broader concept that goes beyond formal institutions and includes the participation of citizens. They emphasise the value of public participation in fostering accountability and ensuring that individuals in positions of authority are held accountable for their deeds and decisions (Gaventa & Barrett, 2010). Instead of viewing accountability as a static system of checks and balances, Gaventa and Barrett (2010) see it as a dynamic process requiring continual work and commitment from all those involved. It is important for young people to participate in improving the quality of democracy, as they are agents of change. Young people can bring new ideas and views, challenge the status quo, and mobilise others to do so. In the past, young people have radically transformed government policies and empowered institutions to act in an active way on decisions that shape their lives and future. Other cases mostly focus on the digital aspect of protesting and the importance of social media platforms in enhancing participatory democracy. This case is particularly notable as it focuses on the physical demonstration of student protesting as a form of youth participation. Physical demonstrations of opposition can sometimes serve as a better way to hold institutions accountable than social media sites, since they enable citizens to physically participate and demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the actions of those in power.
Background History and Context
Historically, black university students were barred from participating in institutional decision-making processes that affected their enrollment, revenue allocation, academic obstacles, or general well-being during apartheid South Africa (Mthethwa & Chikoko, 2020). The Higher Education act of 1997 rectified this by including the SRC in university governance, where they can influence and promote students' academic interests (Mthethwa & Chikoko, 2020). The University of the Western Cape is well recognised for its fight against apartheid and ongoing campaign against injustice, discrimination, and disadvantage in contemporary South Africa. Through its innovative and distinctive position in academia, it has been a leader in South Africa's historical changes, which have helped shape the creation of a single country. As a public university that is built on democratic principles, students are encouraged to participate in decision-making to strengthen democratic practices and are encouraged to report their concerns to the student representative council, who then meets with university officials on their behalf (Mthethwa & Chikoko, 2020).
According to UWC's rector, some of the student accommodation buildings date back to the 1960s, and logistical and structural problems are inevitable, but the next step would be to renovate all the buildings, which would take time (Thebus, 2023). The student accommodation facilities provided 2720 beds in ten UWC-owned student housings, doubling the accommodation capacity to 6,833 beds (Thebus, 2023). The rector and chairperson of UWC expressed that this has modified the residence admission policy in such a way as to revoke the 60-kilometre radius restriction (Thebus, 2023). The Higher Education Minister, Nzimande, said at the launch of the two new accommodation buildings that to ensure that maintenance delays are managed, and the quality of infrastructure management improved at these institutions, the priority will be on developing infrastructure in historically disadvantageous universities, such as the University of the Western Cape (Hlati, 2023). The student representative council formally deliberated and participated in meetings prior to protesting against these issues. Students felt that the university board did not adequately address the safety concerns and consequently protested at the University of the Western Cape during the launch of two new accommodation projects in front of the newly constructed Unibell student quarters.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Both the student body and the students themselves participated in the protest over safety and accommodation issues and spent sufficient time to organise the protest, prepare materials, and communicate with participants and media. In order to highlight the importance of these issues, many students have been involved in organising and taking part in this protest. The SRC was the main organiser of the student protest. The SRC represents and promotes the rights of all students as well as their general interests and societal welfare (Nyundu, Naidoo, & Chagonda, 2015). The SRC is a key stakeholder in policymaking and coordinating decisions at UWC. The SRC is composed of 12 members representing various student organisations and individual students, who are chosen by a student body each year. The SRC is a significant stakeholder in the UWC community as it includes student input on decision-making and has supported students throughout the protest. Since the SRC is fully funded by the university, we could say that the protest was funded by the university. There is no evidence of any other forms of funding or organisers in this case.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
All students, staff, and even those from outside the University of Western Cape, had been invited to take part in protests about safety and accommodation. The protest was mainly for students living in student accommodation buildings, who have been exposed to safety and maintenance problems.The student representative council (SRC), however, called on all students to participate in the protest and stressed that it was not restricted to those who were experiencing accommodation problems.
Methods and Tools Used
There were two methods used in this case. The first method used was formal deliberation meetings and reports. A formal deliberation meeting in this case refers to a set-up, structured meeting whereby both parties meet to discuss critical issues concerning students and the university. This formal deliberation method allows students to communicate their views and suggestions to the university, which will then be able to take the necessary steps to deal with any issue that arises. Professional conduct and mutual respect for the views of students and administrators are expected from both parties during the meeting. A formal deliberation meeting is thus a crucial tool for dialogue and cooperation, as it could contribute to improving the quality of learning and student life at universities..The main deliberative method used by students to convey their dissatisfaction was through democratic protests. Democratic protests have grown increasingly frequent over the past few years, as outlined by Brancati (2016). Protests are fuelled by the spread of social media, as is a growing disenchantment with mainstream policy institutions (ibid.). A variety of forms of protest are involved in democratic movements, from peaceful demonstrations to violent uprisings (ibid.). A key role in shaping the outcomes of democratic protests is played by civil society organisations and the media. Democracy protests represent a major challenge to authoritarian regimes and an illustration of hope for those who seek more freedom from their governments. Citizens are able to express their frustration with the political system by participating in democratic protests. It is an essential tool for holding democratic institutions to account.
Arnstein (1969) argues that, in order for citizens to participate in a democratic society, they will have to shift power and decision-making authority from powerful players to the people themselves. Arnstein (1969) also emphasises that, unlike superficial initiatives to involve individuals in decision-making, meaningful public participation requires constant work and dedication. Protesting can sometimes serve as a better way to hold institutions accountable than formal democratic processes or social media sites, since it enables citizens to physically participate and demonstrate their dissatisfaction. Even though social media platforms and town hall meetings can be powerful tools for mobilising student engagement, they cannot replicate the impact of physical demonstrations on holding public institutions, such as the university, to account. Student protests illustrate shared power and solidarity among students. When students come together, they create a powerful force that can influence universities' actions. Student protests may put more pressure on institutions to meet their demands than formal deliberative meetings.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Phase 1- deliberation process: Prior to the student protest, the student representative council at the University of the Western Cape formally deliberated with the university administration through regular meetings and reports about accommodation and safety concerns (Nene, 2023). According to Nene (2023), Hlati (2023) and Thebus (2023), the SRC met with university officials regularly to discuss the Wi-Fi-connection and water supply issue faced by students in accommodation facilities. According to one UWC student, they complained to the Student Representative Council (SRC) about their safety concerns and the SRC was supposed to speak with management on their behalf (Hlati, 2023). Mandla Notyawa, president of the SRC, stated that they met with university management on multiple occasions (Hlati, 2023).
Phase 2- Student participation: The president of the SRC felt that the formal deliberation process did not lead to effective outcomes, as the university did not respond appropriately to their concerns. Students, therefore, protested during the launch of two new accommodation buildings (Hlati, 2023). Thebus (2023) reported that over a hundred students had waited outside one of the Unibell entrances where Nzimande was supposed to arrive. To disperse students, university security employed pellet firearms and tear gas (Thebus, 2023). Dahl (1998) argues that democratic order must be balanced among various groups and institutions. To prevent any one group or individual from being too dominant, he believed that a good democracy required checks and balances. The student protest that occurred in May over accommodation and safety concerns deepened democratic practices at UWC, as students held the institution accountable for their actions. Students were able to express their frustration with the university’s failure to respond to their concerns by participating in democratic protests. Diamond & Morlino (2005) argue that commitment to democratic values and effective management and institutional reforms are essential to improve the quality of democracy. Students deepened democratic practices at the university and improved the quality thereof through protesting against these safety issues. Students held the university accountable through demanding that University officials address their safety concerns and put measures into place to minimise criminal activity against students by providing shuttle services.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Through participating in protests, participatory democracy has been achieved, as students actively participate in decision-making and promote democratic practices such as inclusion, equality, and public accountability. Participatory democracy has allowed students to foster democracy and ensure the accountability of university officials. Arnstein (1969) argues that participation by citizens requires more than a simple question of input from the public. Instead, it requires a shift in power and decision-making authority from the government to citizens. According to Arnstein (1969), higher levels of the ladder include more substantive forms of citizen participation, like partnership and citizen control. According to Arnstein (1969), for citizens to truly participate, they must shift power and decision-making authority from powerful actors to the people themselves. In this case, the recent student protest over safety and accommodation issues is a form of youth participation, as students actively worked together with UWC’s administrators by advocating for change through protesting.
The student protest over safety and accommodation issues also allowed students to raise their concerns through physical demonstrations. The university was able to respond to some of the complaints by students and has actively engaged in working with the student representative council to tackle these safety concerns. UWC’s vice chancellor took accountability to some extent and mentioned that students submitted a report on all residences, and discussions were then convened to determine what corrective actions might be performed (Thebus, 2023). In an effort to meet protesters' demands, the university administration has consulted students about strengthening security measures. The protest forced the university's administration to engage in dialogue and negotiations with protesting activists, seeking a mutual solution for these issues (Thebus, 2023). Professor Tyrone Pretorius, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, stated that they were working to resolve these issues and that every infrastructure project faces delays (ibid.). Pretorius expressed that logistical and structural problems are inevitable, but that they were focusing on eventually renovating as many residences as they could (ibid.). He emphasised that this process would take time, and with the help of the department, they would rectify these issues in phases (ibid.). Pretorius also stated that students have presented reports on accommodation, and meetings were held in order to discuss remedial measures (ibid.). Pretorius stated that they had known of problems in other buildings, which were being looked after, as well as not having reported complaints from a new building to the management (Thebus, 2023). He stated that they would continue to engage students on any issues they may have.
A few protesters who engaged in violence were arrested, and others faced disciplinary action, such as suspension or expulsion. Students had the opportunity to physically engage with each other to hold the institution accountable for their lack of responsiveness to the concerns raised by the SRC. Student protests encourage a higher level of participation among youth by giving them the option to express their views and concerns on issues that have an impact in direct or indirect ways. They have contributed to shaping public discussions and influencing the decision-making process through their participation in protests. Students participated in dialogues that deepened their awareness of challenging problems by participating in protests. As a result of the protests, youth were encouraged to take part in new forms of civic engagement such as voting, participation in political parties, and volunteer work for community organisations. Overall, protesting is a major factor that has increased youth engagement. Through protesting, students had the opportunity to physically engage with each other to hold the institution accountable for their lack of responsiveness to the concerns raised by the SRC. Student protests encourage a higher level of participation among youth by giving them the option to express their views and concerns on issues that have an impact in direct or indirect ways. They have contributed to shaping public discussions and influencing the decision-making process through their participation in protests. Students participated in dialogues that deepened their awareness of challenging problems by participating in protests. As a result of the protests, youth were encouraged to take part in new forms of civic engagement, such as voting, participation in political parties, and volunteer work for community organisations. Invented spaces are spaces that citizens create for themselves (Cornwall, Schattan, and Coelho, 2007). These are often spaces created outside of formal political structures in which citizens express their concerns and demand change (ibid.). Social movements, civic organisations, and protest groups are examples of invented spaces. The student protest movement was an invented space created by students to express their grievances against the university’s failure to respond appropriately to their demands. Students used the opportunity to informally protest against these issues during the launch of new accommodation projects.
The student protest over accommodation and safety concerns demonstrated that participatory democracy leads to vertical accountability. The student protest movement engaged young people in participatory processes through further mechanisms of vertical accountability that include holding public agencies, such as the University of the Western Cape, accountable through partnerships between the student body and the university. The student protest over safety and accommodation issues also allowed students to raise their concerns through physical demonstrations. Responsiveness is defined as the extent to which citizens are pleased with the performance of their representative (Diamond & Morlino, 2005). Responsiveness, in this case, was not fully achieved, as some students participating in the democratic processes felt that they successfully held the institution accountable, and others felt that the university did not fully respond to their demands. The university was only able to respond to some of the complaints by students and has actively engaged in working with the student representative council to tackle these safety concerns. UWC’s vice chancellor took accountability to some extent and mentioned that students submitted a report on all residences, and discussions were then convened to determine what corrective actions might be performed (Hlati, 2023).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
When a peaceful protest turns violent, it often gets more media coverage and attention than the peaceful protests. The media tends to focus on the violence, destruction of property, and clashes with police, rather than the underlying message of the peaceful protest. This is evident in the case of UWC students protesting against accommodation and safety issues. They raised their concerns to the University and felt that the institution did not swiftly respond to their demands. Some students decided to demand change through violent demonstrations. Violent incidents were reported mainly by the media, which have led to negative perceptions of protests. The deployment of law enforcement and military forces further escalated the situation and resulted in more violence. The students consequently lost their ability to articulate their message, as the media mainly reported the destruction of property, and clashes with police rather than the underlying message of the protest.
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UWC - University of the Western Cape.
SRC - Student representative council.