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Updated 25 October 2015

What if the #Feesmustfall protests turn violent?

Street crowds can be volatile, posing danger to fellow protesters and innocent bystanders. What is it that can trigger this transition from peaceful protest to violence at the #Feesmustfall protests?

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Students at the Union Buildings have given President Jacob Zuma one hour to respond to them "or else".

Journalists on the scene are also being pelted with various missiles including rocks. The #feesmustfall protests are happening ahead of a crisis meeting in Pretoria between President Jacob Zuma, student leaders, and vice-chancellors over university fees.

When do protests turn to mob violence?

Crowds, and especially those involved in instances of mob violence, tend to initially gather for a well-defined social or political reason. 

South Africa is no stranger to political and social protests or strikes that turn violent. The current protests by university students against rising tuition fees have been claimed as being the biggest since the fall of Apartheid.

Student leaders warned Parliament five years ago that inadequate student funding was a ticking time bomb.

“Crowds are formed in the context of common anger and concerns around issues regarding the physical, emotional, psychological/mental wellbeing of residents in communities,” according to Haseena Parker of the Trauma Centre in Cape Town.

Such social gatherings already have a social charge, and cannot be divorced from the social context in which they occur.

Disempowerment angers

“Groups often develop extreme responses due to their lack of faith in the police, justice and correctional services,” according to Parker. “Their reactions are further provoked when they feel their anger and concerns/grievances are not contained in a positive and humane manner by the authorities.”

They are often treated by authorities as a hindrance, rather than that their acts of lobbying against practices of human rights violations are supportively welcomed, says Parker.

For this reason, it is extremely important for authorities to show good judgement in their handling of an angry crowd. In certain situations, a hard-handed approach may well be exactly the kind of trigger that can result in a riot.

News24 reported that police are using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesting students outside the University of the Western Cape (UWC). In London, protesters have also got past a barricade at the SA High Commission while at the Union Buildings protesters broke through the perimeter fence, set fire to a portable toilet while journalists on the scene are also being pelted with various missiles.

In the past days police have fired rubber bullets and live ammunition (at UWC), to try to control the protesters.

Alert: Rubber bullets can harm students

Due to the 'use of excessive force' Legal Resources Centre approached the Western Cape High Court on 22 October seeking an urgent interdict to prevent police from using force to disperse protesting students. The application has been postponed.

The ANC has also raised concern over how the police have handled the protests.

“Some groups/crowds/mobs have the sort of powerful group dynamics that can sometimes unfortunately get caught up with influences that provoke violent reactions,” according to Parker.

It is also possible that certain elements in a crowd may want the situation to erupt, and that people who would otherwise avoid violence, could lose their judgement and get on the bandwagon.

When things calm down

“After the event individuals are often left feeling angrier at being treated with disregard by the authorities, while some individuals could end up feeling guilty or ashamed of their violent reactions,” says Parker.

They also argue that, “in the context of human rights violations and atrocities against children, people share common feelings of despair, mistrust, lack of safety and lack of faith in the police.

This could therefore explain why such incidents are occurring more frequently.

The role of the media could also be influential in this regard.

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