Attorneys’ profession offer mediation services in education crisis

October 24th, 2016

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

At its meeting on 29 September the Council of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) expressed serious concern at the developments at tertiary institutions. It resolved to offer mediation services by experienced attorney mediators to all the parties involved in the education dispute in an effort to resolve the impasse.

In a press release, LSSA Co-chairpersons, Mvuzo Notyesi and Jan van Rensburg said: ‘We offer the skills and expertise of our attorney mediators on a pro bono basis in an effort to get representatives of universities, student formations and relevant government departments around the table in dialogue.’

According to the press release, the LSSA Council expressed its serious distress at the violent and destructive nature of the student protests and stressed that it cannot condone violent behaviour and the destruction of property and infrastructure.

The LSSA also emphasised that it does not support the stance of any specific party in this dispute. ‘We believe that the lack of communication between the parties, the positional stances adopted, the closure of some educational institutions and suspension of classes at others, jeopardises the current academic year for many, many students – including law students that may be preparing to join the profession next year – and the outcome will have a knock-on effect on the intake of students in 2017,’ said Mr Van Rensburg and Mr Notyesi.

They added: ‘We are at a tipping point for our educational institutions. We are confident that with constructive dialogue we can coax the parties back from an abyss that, once we are all cast into it, will have serious repercussions for the entire country and for the rule of law. We cannot afford to compromise our educational institutions to the point where they can no longer recover and we cannot afford to compromise the education and development of another generation of young adults.’

The LSSA engaged with all the provincial law societies to set up panels of mediators to provide pro bono mediation services to the affected parties at tertiary institutions in their areas of jurisdiction.

The Cape Law Society initiated this project when its Council unanimously resolved to utilise its resources, as well as establish a team of mediators from among its members with a view to offering mediation services to all concerned parties, in particular the universities, student formations and relevant government departments. The resolution took place at its council meeting on 25 September.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) offered legal assistance to students who had been arrested during the protests.

In a press release, NADEL said that it was ‘deeply disturbed’ by the downward spiral that the protests for free, quality higher education had taken.

NADEL said that there was merit in the demands made by the students, as s 29 of the Constitution speaks on the right to education. ‘The state must make higher education progressively available and accessible through reasonable measures. President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, on 18 January 2015 ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights by which the state is bound to make higher education equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every means and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education,’ NADEL said in the press release.

NADEL noted, however, ‘with great concern that a legitimate struggle is now being compromised by the closure of universities, violence and the burning of important infrastructure and buildings. This infrastructure is required for the full enjoyment of the right itself and for the prosperity of future generations. Much needed financial capacity will be diverted to repair and rebuild such infrastructure.’

‘It is, therefore, the responsibility of NADEL, as public interest lawyers, to now intervene for the promotion of social justice. NADEL has taken the decision to provide legal assistance to students who have been arrested during the protests. This is based on students’ rights to legal representation and in the pursuit of access to justice for everyone,’ it stated.

NADEL said it would take a more constructive role in assisting students to explore and exhaust all legal measures available to them in the pursuit of greater democracy in general and the realisation of the right to free, higher education in particular.

NADEL also seriously cautioned students to respect the rule of law and to avoid further arrests.

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele, Communications Officer, Law Society of South Africa,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2016 (Nov) DR 23.

De Rebus