South African Police Services (SAPS) officials must respect the constitutional right of students to protest and should act within the framework of the law when trying to contain protests from getting out of hand, according to Western Cape MEC for Community Safety, Dan Plato. Students across the country have been engaged in week-long protests over proposed tuition fee increases.
Scenes have turned ugly in recent days, with police shouldering criticism for allegedly using excessive force against students. On Wednesday, officers used stun grenades and teargas to disperse protesters who managed to force their way through the gates of Parliament. Similar scenes were seen on Friday afternoon during a protest outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, while clashes have also been reported on several campuses across the country.
In a bid to prevent protests from getting out of hand, student leadership has sought to apply for a court order at the Cape High Court for an interdict against SAPS.
Speaking on Friday, Plato stressed that the police’s role would be to protect property and life during the protests. The onus was therefore also on students to ensure they “conduct their business” without overstepping the rule of law.
“Police act sometimes under very difficult circumstances, and need to decide on the spur of the moment what is right and what is wrong, and how they need to act against that,” he noted.
Plato said action could be taken against the police by students if they felt their rights had been infringed. Such matters would be referred to the Provincial Police Ombudsman for investigation.
“Students must get the feeling that as a government we respect them and what they are doing, and we are serious about investigating any complaint they might have,” he assured.
Students arrested for the parliamentary precinct incident were initially set to face charges of ‘high treason’, potentially motivated by the fact that parliament is considered as a ‘national key-point’. Plato stressed that while police had a pivotal role to play in ensuring the safety of these key-points, he did not know why this would give rise to the use of brute force against students.
The Provincial Police Ombudsman has since acknowledged that it has received a referral of complaints from the Western Cape government.
With no clear resolutions in sight at present, protests are likely to continue well into next week. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)