By David Benatar*
Once again, marauding thugs have disrupted normal activities at the University of Cape Town (and other universities in South Africa). Although they are fond of presenting themselves as victims and as a progressive vanguard, they are in fact the very opposite. They are perpetrators who violate the rights of others, and they are the agents of destruction, which, in the long run, is not good for anybody, least of all those whose interests they purport to represent.
In a rights-respecting democracy, we all have a very strong duty to respect the law. The social contract we have is that disagreements about what the law should be are sorted out via the designated political and legal processes. We then have a presumptive duty to respect the law on the understanding that that is the cost of expecting that others will respect the law when they disagree with it. You must obey the laws you don’t like because otherwise you’ll have no grounds for expecting me to obey those laws I don’t like.
Yet the student protesters want things both ways. They expect the University to comply with the law while they themselves trample all over it. They are the first to demand their rights, while routinely violating the rights of those whose education they disrupt, those whom they intimidate and harass (sometimes with racist invective), and in some cases, those whom they physically assault.
In the face of this illegality, the University of Cape Town Executive has repeatedly taken a soft path, attempting to negotiate and appease. There are, however, some serious problems with becoming the University of Capitulation.
First, the University becomes complicit in the protesters’ violation of others’ rights. We are repeatedly told that “UCT recognises the right to engage in legitimate and peaceful protest and urges protesters to respect the right of other members of the campus community to attend classes and arrive at work.” However, urging protesters to respect the rights of others is simply not sufficient. One actually has to protect those rights.
Second, capitulation encourages those who seek to hold the University hostage to its growing list of demands. One reason we are facing disruptions in 2016 is that the University surrendered in 2015. Had it conveyed a firm message last year that illegal behaviour would not be tolerated, it would have removed one incentive to the present (and potential future) disruptions.