University Student Protests - The Time to Change the Game is Now

Updated: May 20

The relationship between the parties at our educational institutions can only be based on the principles of sharing, collaboration, nurturing, safeguarding, mentorship and at its core, the preservation of trust between the different stakeholders. The student protests have unfortunately become more prevalent and have consistently been marred by the parties aggressive and polarising approach to each other, the drastic lack of resources, legitimate rational arguments on all sides, poor fiscal management, and the inability to find sustainable solutions and processes to resolve the matters.

Admittedly, from the protection of my office and car windows, I am staggered at our inability to find meaningful ways to develop sustainable solutions through effective processes. I cannot help but feel affronted by the current use of paramilitary and security operations at our Universities and in public spaces, especially as I grew up with the constant barrage of apartheid police brutality in my school in Lenasia and early University life. I cannot help but feel deeply aggrieved when University resources are destroyed without a smitten of regret, especially knowing the University's financial desperation in securing and preserving such resources. I cannot help but feel desperate for the plight of poor students being desperately displayed for all to see in public but to ignore.

I too struggled to pay for my university fees and was lucky to have made it, with the hard work of my parents, part-time night work and a lot of prayers. I am also confronted by the victims of exclusions every day and feel their desperation. I cannot help but feel attached and desperate to do something.

As a professional lawyer, a dispute resolution expert, a sessional lecturer at Wits University and a father to children who will need the comfort and hope of a tertiary education sometime soon, I am confronted by the complexity of thoughts and emotions. It is difficult to partition as I understand all sides.

I, however, know objectively from the work I have done in complex conflict situations, that there are wise process choices that must be made. It involves a multilayered and integrated approach, which must be resourced and applied at all facets of the university structures. While there may have been attempts in the past, it may not have been effective. We need a sustainable dispute resolution process and we must mend and preserve the relationships to find sustainable solutions. A thorough process would require transparency and buy-in from all role players. These role players need to commit to the process and honour the agreements that are reached during this process.

I suggest:

  1. Appoint an independent dispute resolution team that will be approved by all parties.

  2. Build a process with all parties.

  3. Conduct a mediation process to manage immediate issues and to establish a terms of reference for the process.

  4. Establish a broadly representative working group with an independent facilitator.

  5. Diagnose the underlying problems and create a space for understanding the different viewpoints.

  6. Separate the real needs from the demands.

  7. Establish formal and informal communication structures with clear terms of reference and ideally, have them chaired by an independent facilitator/mediator.

  8. Consider the people, the process and problems raised carefully before creating solutions that are sustainable.

  9. Establish educational and ongoing dispute resolution structures and protocols to manage such matters.

  10. Establish long term mechanisms to restore the relationship dynamic.

We have a chance to manage this wisely.

We have a chance to work together in collaboration.

We have a chance to allow this painful journey to be a valuable and practical educational opportunity.

We have a chance to save our future by creating sustainable solutions.

We have a chance for peace.

We, however, must act now and we must act differently.