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What South Africa’s student protests have taught me about peacekeeping

Peacekeepers can offer a channel of communication between police and protesters. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

During the 1980s as an academic at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, I found myself caught between police and protesters – if “caught” applies to a deliberate insertion. I was a member of a peacekeeping group headed by then deputy vice-chancellor Mervyn Shear.

Our job was to try to calm both sides, who were clashing amid a State of Emergency imposed by the apartheid government. As peacekeepers we weren’t very popular, but learned good lessons in de-escalating protest.

Three decades later, I have put those lessons to the test at a very different university in a country that’s changed a great deal. Rhodes University – University currently known as Rhodes (Uckar), to those who favour decolonisation – is South Africa’s smallest established university.

Rhodes is unique in many ways. It dominates a small city, Grahamstown. Its local police would rather not have chaos in their hometown. It is home to a group of progressive staff who have consistently argued against criminalising protest.

Given these elements, what we did during September and October 2016 may not apply to all universities. But I offer the experiences of our small group of peacekeepers as lessons for others as South Africa’s higher education institutions lurch from one crisis to the next.

Getting started

I was away for a conference when #FeesMustFall protests broke out. During my absence a PhD student, who prefers to remain anonymous, started peacekeeping efforts at Rhodes. He cares deeply for his university and wanted to help.

There was one key difference from my 1980s experience. He learned how to communicate between protesters and police who often do not understand each other. Protesters talk politics and morality. Police use the language of procedures and threat levels.

He was on first name terms with the local police commander, a tall affable Lieutenant Colonel. This was impossible in the 1980s – then, the police were totally intractable. Upon my return to Grahamstown, and since I am less vulnerable than a student, I became the public face of peacekeeping.

Heating up

We tried several strategies to reduce escalation: accompanying groups of protesters into buildings, relaying messages between police and protesters and trying to calm angry confrontations. During this learning stage, our duo risked being seen as orchestrators since we were so often at hot spots.

But the student movement is distrustful of outsiders and seldom heeds external advice. Our role in protest-police scenarios was to find out what it took to avoid police action and the protesters trusted us to pass that on.

October 3 2016 marked a big turning point. We formed a WhatsApp group and recruited about 20 more peacekeepers. Two days later, we won support from the vice-chancellor’s office, which meant we were unlikely to be arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This official backing came as a welcome relief. However, the earlier and more difficult stage was necessary: it helped establish our credibility with police and protesters.

Most of our work over the past two months has involved de-escalating protest. As peacekeepers, we’ve been able to find ways to help protesters to change their behaviour to avoid triggering police action. Where we have failed, it has usually been because something has triggered police action before we could intervene. The police, when we have been able to intervene, have been surprisingly willing to turn a blind eye to “unlawful” protest provided it is doing no significant harm.

Seven principles and lessons

A few general principles and observations have emerged from our experiences. Seven in particular may find application at other universities grappling with protests.

  1. Maintain neutrality – do not try to discern either side’s plans. Do not judge either side.

  2. Accept that leaders may wish to remain hidden.

  3. Angry people don’t like being told what to do.

  4. The police also don’t like to be told what to do.

  5. Police are not persuaded by moral and political arguments. They operate on procedures and threat levels.

  6. Providing facts and leaving antagonists to make up their own minds works better than telling them what to do.

  7. Remember that you’re dealing with humans on all sides. As soon as you stop seeing anyone as a person, you risk being drawn into the conflict.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just before this article was published, Rhodes erupted. On the night of October 17, a WhatsApp message alerted me to chaos. Campus was scattered with police officers, and, it turned out, some broken glass. I ventured out into the dark, finding students terrified of being arrested or shot. Some hid behind me when a stun grenade went off.

About 10 were arrested, including several who were just trying to get home in violation of a curfew no one was told about. Some were injured with rubber bullets and at least one by a stun grenade that went off on her foot. She was hospitalised and could be arrested for charges as yet unknown. She is part of an informal group who offer first aid to those injured.

This was a peacekeeping fail. Breaking glass at night, which is what some students did, is not a great strategy. It gives the police cover to overreact. Official reports from the university have focused on student-led mayhem but not mentioned overreactions of the other side. Cops shot at protesters indiscriminately. They arrested bystanders, threatened staff and peacekeepers who were trying to get things under control – and even chased student journalists off campus at gunpoint.

It is hard to know if this is a turning point and ends our ability to talk to the police. But we have been able to talk after a previous incident of police violence.

Giving peace a chance

There have been some failures in our work over the past two months, as I’ve described. However, we believe that at least a few of the lessons we’ve learned at Rhodes might help other universities. It is very sad to see conflict almost at the level of a civil war at some campuses.

Peacekeeping is not easy. But for universities to begin working towards solutions, it is crucial that their communities give peace a chance.

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