Monday, August 05, 2013

Student protests and vandalism
By Editor
Fri 19 July 2013, 14:00 CAT

Evelyn Hone College has been closed for two weeks following a riot by students in which they destroyed property worth over half a million kwacha. And 70 students comprising 21 males and 49 females have been arrested by the police in connection with this destruction of property.

No one can oppose or challenge the students' right to protest. In a democratic society, students, like all other citizens, have a right to gather peacefully and protest the policies, decisions or actions of their government or those of other groups with demonstrations, marches, petitions, class and other boycotts and other forms of direct citizen action.

Direct action is open to everyone in a democracy, but it traditionally has been used by disadvantaged or marginalised groups who feel excluded from other means of influencing government policies and actions. And students rightly fall in this category. Such protests have always been part of democratic societies. Today, non-violent protest, often designed to attract the attention of the news media, encompasses a wide array of issues.

Protests are a testing ground for any democracy. The ideals of free expression and citizen participation are easy to defend when everyone remains polite and in agreement on basic issues. But protestors and their targets do not agree on basic issues, and such disagreements may be passionate and angry. The challenge then is one of balance: to defend the right to freedom of speech and assembly, while maintaining public order and countering attempts at violence and destruction of property. To suppress peaceful protest in the name of order is to invite repression; to permit uncontrolled violent protest is to invite anarchy. And we feel some Evelyn Hone students crossed the line into the sphere of anarchy.

Among the things they destroyed were six panels of a wall permeter in two places, a block of fabricated classroom was burnt, all windows in the fabricated classroom were shattered. A traffic light on Church Road was damaged and so were 10 Zamtel billboards on Church Road. They destroyed a glass pane at Lusaka Fire Brigade. And a padlock at a Zesco sub-station within campus was destroyed. The windscreens of three private minibuses parked at Lusaka Central Police Station were smashed.

The question is: should the authorities turn a blind eye to all this unjustified destruction of property, both private and public, simply because those involved were students? The answer is a categorical no.
Those involved in the destruction of all this property are students who have committed a crime for which they deserve to be arrested and prosecuted. There is no connection between the traffic lights on Church Road and the problems they are facing at Evelyn Hone College.

What is the connection between their grievances and the private minibuses parked at Lusaka Central Police Station? What have Zamtel billboards got to do with their college issues? How will damaging the Lusaka Fire Brigade premises help to resolve the problems they are facing at Evelyn Hone College? What about the classroom they have destroyed! Who should rebuild it? Where are they going to be learning from when the college reopens?

The criminal behaviour of students needs to be dealt with. There is need to prosecute those who were involved in the destruction of property and send them to jail if possible. It is not enough to simply expel those who destroyed property. They need to be prosecuted so that an example is set. The property they destroyed is not theirs. Some of it is for the common good of all - present and future students need to use these facilities for their own benefit and for the benefit of society. No one has the right to destroy public or private property in the name of a protest.

It is time our students were taught a lesson in civility. Many people have been maimed for life by protesting students. We have people who have lost their eyes on our public roads from stones thrown by protesting or rioting students. This needs to be put to an end. And it is not a matter between students and their college authorities. It is a public issue that needs to be prosecuted by the police.

The students involved are not minors. They are adults under the law - most of them, if not all, are over 18 years of age. They therefore deserve to be treated like any other citizen who commits a similar crime of vandalism.

They have the right to protest but they do not have the right to wantonly destroy public or private property. They could still attract enough attention to their issues by protesting peacefully without destroying property. Those who engage in vandalism in the name of protest lose the protection of the law in such protests. The law protects the right to protest and not the destruction of property.

And it should be made a collective responsibility of all students who will be allowed back to pay for the classroom that has been destroyed, failure to that they should learn under a tree. This kind of behaviour should not be tolerated in any of our institutions of learning and indeed from any citizen or group of citizens whatever their grievances. Therefore, those involved in this vandalism should be taught a lesson that will stand as an example to all.

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