As the South African Union of Students (SAUS) we are shocked to hear that 11 student leaders are being expelled from Wits University (Johannesburg, South Africa) for one year. We welcome however that the sentence has been suspended.
Furthermore, that these 11 Wits University students must carry out community service for having protested against the Apartheid State of Israel is incoherent. The protesting students were upholding the values of protest and dissent that has long existed within the student community of South Africa from the time of Steven Bantu Biko and even before that. Many of our university campuses, particularly Wits University, have historically been sites of major political activism and struggle. It is with sadness that we note Wits University’s most recent attempt to prevent this tradition of protest and dissent from continuing on their campus.
We believe that this heavy-handed punishment by Wits University’s management for a non-violent, student protest indicates a level of victimisation and intimidation of student leaders on our campuses. All 11 of the affected students have served as members of the Wits University Students Representative Council (Wits SRC). Moreover, the sentence, made public last week Friday, is an anti-protest and anti-activism stance and will be used to deter future protests through creating an atmosphere at Wits University which aims to stifle political activity.
SAUS is appalled that Wits University first went to the media with information of last week’s sentencing instead of first informing the affected students. This is improper.
SAUS upholds and champions the right of students to engage in protest, particularly on the matter of Israel’s illegal occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. In this regard we recall our own SAUS statement from 2011 that read: "We, students and youth of a post Apartheid South Africa, who bear the scars of a racist history and who continue to fight for complete liberation, have a duty and responsibility to stand in solidarity with those facing oppression worldwide. Israeli apartheid is one such form of oppression...We lived apartheid, we suffered apartheid, we know what apartheid is, we recognise apartheid when we see it. And when we see Israel, we see a regime that practices apartheid. Israel’s image needs no changing; its policies do!"
The issue seems very clear: Wits University is bending to serve the interests of the Israeli lobby in South Africa. Wits University’s SRC adopted a boycott of Israel resolution in 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/a3dphzl)
. The Israeli lobby in South Africa attempted to undermine this resolution by hosting an Israeli Embassy funded concert in 2013. The students appealed to the Wits University Management not to allow this event due to the Wits SRC 2012 academic boycott of Israel resolution. When the Wits University Management failed to cancel the concert, which the university was within its right to do (as confirmed by Advocate Geoff Budlender in 2011) the students chose to protest the Israeli concert. The concert was subsequently protested and cancelled due to the protests and disruptions. The Israeli lobby then forced Wits University to punish the students. Professor Adam Habib has gone on record stating that Wits University has come under financial pressure from the Israeli lobby (http://tinyurl.com/puag339
). SAUS wholly condemns the interference by members of the pro-Israeli community in academic matters and protests.
In 2011 SAUS together with the South African Students Congress (SASCO) urged "all SRCs, student groups and other youth structures to strategize and implement a boycott of Israel and its campaigns. We declare that all SA campuses must be Apartheid-Israel free zones...As with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, international solidarity is key in overcoming Israeli Apartheid.” (http://tinyurl.com/acaorsu
) The Wits University’s SRC resolution to boycott Israel has the backing of SAUS and we must defend the right of SRC and universities that adopt such resolutions.
SAUS stands firmly behind the "Wits 11" and will continue to assist these students as they go forward into appealing the decision of the university. SAUS further reiterates its commitment to the right to protest on our campuses and the right of all students to engage in various forms of political and social activism.