Respect is key to campus peace
FOR the first time in all the campus violence, this week I saw a South African National Defence Force helicopter hovering over students who were involved in running battles with police at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
The police were there to enforce a court interdict restricting picketing to designated areas.
But there was a power play going on between the students supporting free higher education and the management attempting to restart the academic programme.
It took the police to make a way for the management through the protesters to access the administration block.
In the melee I sniffed that dreaded smell of teargas. It was as if I was transported back to 1980’s when such experiences were a norm.
The deployment of the army would undoubtedly please those who feel the police have lost control of this situation.
But students are already scared by the actions of the police and I think the presence of the army will only make things worse.
Meanwhile with some students digging their heels in and vowing to shut down the university until all their demands are met, the standoff continues with no solution in sight.
In a vast body of work on peacemaking, Norwegian professor of peace studies Johan Galtung observes that “as conflicts deepen and spread, they generate secondary conflicts” within the main parties or among outsiders who get sucked in.
“This often considerably complicates the task of addressing the original, core conflict.”
And indeed, I experienced firsthand much of this playing out, including how it was possible for a few students armed with stones to reduce a peaceful and noble cause into an orgy of violence.
Some students do take glee in stirring chaos by pelting police with stones and then hiding in bushes or behind others. The result is that students not involved in the violence suffer needlessly.
But the fact is that many of the students actually abhor violence but have failed to root out the provocateurs among them.
And it is these violent and destructive students who often attract the gaze of the media. This raises another possible factor in conflict: media methods of reporting.
Joel Modiri, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, expressed a concern this week that the increased media attention to the student protests might be sidetracking students from their core mission.
“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,” he wrote for the Daily Maverick.
It is fair to say that media houses tend to go for the drama and do not really stop to consider solutions for peace, or the often laborious process of conflict resolution.
The chaotic scenes that we regularly see in our parliament have also not helped in making a negotiated settlement an attractive proposition. Rather, they have given traction to the idea that militancy is more valuable than manners.
I also suspect that a sense of triumphalism might be blinding some students. It is doing so to the degree that they fail to see that one day, as possible future leaders, they may be standing on exactly the opposite side of where they are now.
Also that while, as a country, we have been through a lot and we need to improve on what we have inherited, NOT everything needs to be replaced or to fall in order for us to progress.
My concern is that young impressionable minds are now developing methods and modes of behaviour in conflict that will ensure that the current scenario is permanent.
Galtung notes that to resolve a conflict there must eventually be a set of dynamic changes which include a deescalation of conflict behaviour, a change in attitudes and transforming the relationships or clashing interests at the core of the conflict.
He defines four traditional but unsatisfactory ways in which conflicts between two parties are handled: A wins, B loses; B wins, A loses; the solution is postponed because neither A nor B feels ready to end the conflict; a confused compromise is reached, which neither A nor B are happy with.
But there is a fifth way where both A and B feel that they win.
This method insists that basic human needs – such as survival, physical wellbeing, liberty and identity – be respected.
I cross my fingers hoping that the court-ordered mediation process will have the protagonists at NMMU find the fifth way.