Church leaders call S. Africa's #FeesMustFall movement a 'constitutional crisis,' urge restraint

(Photo: ACSA (Anglican Church of Southern Africa).)Civil society and church leaders in Cape Town protest against corruption in South Africa on September 30, 2015

When the #FeesMustFall student-led movement started in South Africa one year ago it had strong public support, and even the top university administrations were sympathetic as well as the churches.

But the violence by the students who burned down university buildings and libraries and the reaction to it by the South African security forces saw the public reaction turn against the movment and the churches issuing calls for restraint.

National church leaders and other faith leaders in Johannesburg issued a statement Oct. 21 saying, "The current crisis in South Africa has gone beyond the 'fees must fall' and is in fact a constitutional crisis."

They said, "It manifests itself in leadership and political factional conflicts in public institutions – that creates instability and distract attention from the fundamental challenges: fighting poverty, creating employment and extending quality health services to all."

Political commentator Max du Preez had written in a newspaper column a few days earlier, "The 'revolution' on our campuses is not primarily about university fees any longer. Nor is it about the 'decolonization' of the curricula."


Du Preez said, "A cue that this is not about fees any longer is the extreme race rhetoric we have witnessed the last few weeks, unlike anything we have ever seen.

"The legitimate struggle against whiteness and white privilege is being overtaken by a populist assault on white citizens. Some days #FeesMustFall sounds more like #WhitesMustFall.," said Du Preez noting that South Africa's white minority do not determine university fees, but the government does.

From the time the protests broke out at South African universities, Holy Trinity Church in Johannesburg had been a place of sanctuary for students fleeing violent protesters and police.

The Trinity church became internationally known early in October Father Graham Pugin, the Jesuit chaplain to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, was shot in the face with a rubber bullet fired by police.

He was trying to stop heavily armed police in a riot control vehicle from entering the church's property. Behind him, in the car park, many students had sought refuge. The violence that had broken out made the area around the church look like a war zone.

Another Jesuit priest, Father Russell Pollitt from the Society of Jesus in South Africa issued a statement Oct. 20 saying the sanctuary had been violated.

He said the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) "strongly condemns" the disruption of the attempted dialogue and the chaos that ensued at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church' Braamfontein in Johannesburg.

"Holy Trinity has consistently attempted to create a space of neutrality and sanctuary in accordance with the long standing tradition of the Catholic Church. This safe and neutral space has been violated by those who declared God's house to be exclusively theirs."

"Since genuine attempts to dialogue and find a resolution to the crisis seem to have ended' Trinity is regrettably no longer available as a venue for meeting," he said.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference said in an Oct. 11 statement that the Catholic Church "agrees that the student protest has foundation."

The bishops said, "We are aware as a Church, of the inequality of opportunity for poor and competent students to access third level education."

They noted that as the protests had spread nationwide they had "assisted students with our limited resources", but they had been unable to help the "majority of the deserving students" we have not been able to help.


The bishops said the students yearn for more equality in access to good education at university level and this they support.

"But we don't condone the violence, looting, and vandalizing of property by students and the use of force by police army.

"By now we feel that the students have made their protest. The whole society, other students, universities, and the government are very aware of the student's protest. It is time now for the disturbances to end and for the academic year to continue and for exams to be written.

"We feel that at this stage there is little more university authorities can do. In fact, they have generally shown themselves sympathetic to the students' demands."

The bishops said the solution currently suggested by the students is beyond the financial and organizational capabilities of university authorities.

In his column Du Preez wrote about wanton student violence and their looting of stores.

"In short, the militants are in the process of destroying the system they claim they want to improve; of damaging the future of the poor students whose interests they claim to champion," he said referring to violence the day before.

"The erudite Wits SRC (Witwatersrand University students' council) spokesperson, Fasiha Hassan, was on the phone with a TV reporter claiming the students were well behaved and only reacted to 'police brutality,' but when she was asked about the stoning and burnings, she abruptly ended the conversation."

The religious leaders in their statement made a similar statement.

"We believe, however, that some of the methods used by students detract from their noble struggle. We urge the students to conduct the struggle with the dignity and with due regard for human life and to our national public assets."

Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape, the only province in South Africa not run by the African National Conrgess, said  Oct. 10 the protests gripping the country are no longer about fees but about power and control.

She said they as much a threat to the future as apartheid once was, noting that the protests needed to be confronted head on.

"We had to stand up for the rule of law, we had to stand up for non-racialism...," said Zille who was a staunch opponent of the apartheid ideology of racism in the 1970s and 1980s.

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