In this chapter I evaluate the South African university student and worker protests of 2015–2016 in the light of moral principles that are largely uncontested in contemporary philosophies of just war, violence and threats. I speak of ‘protests’, ‘uprisings’ and the like in the plural, to deny any suggestion that there was a single, coordinated movement. I do not seek to provide an all-things-considered judgement of the protests across the nation, or even at a given institution – that is, I do not conclude anything of the form that a given struggle was, on balance, just or unjust. Instead, I work in a more piecemeal fashion, appraising representative instances of protests and drawing conclusions about which of them are plausibly deemed to have been morally sound, and which have not been.
I do argue that some ways in which students and workers expressed their resentment and sought to rebut perceived injustice were not merely less than ideal, but wrong, should have been undertaken in other ways and, frankly, merit contrition. That point is compatible with recognising that many of the goals they aimed to achieve have been legitimate and that much good has probably resulted from disruptive protests. Ethically speaking, the ends do not always justify the means. Such is implied by moral principles about why, when and how to use force that are among the least controversial in both the African and Western political philosophical traditions. It is not merely those with ‘middle-class sensibilities’ (Sacks 2016) or ‘liberal old farts’ who believe, or should believe, that some of the means that university students and workers took to fight against injustice were themselves unjust and should be avoided in the future.
Others have addressed the issue of ends and means as they pertain to the protests, and have concluded that often the coercion of innocents and the destruction of property was unjustified (February 2015; Jansen 2015; Bilchitz 2016; Habib 2016; Pamla 2016; cf. Mbembe 2016). My analysis aims to be more philosophically thorough, including responding to attempts to defend coercion, destruction and violence as a reaction to injustice, to be more comprehensive when it comes to the types of protest that were and could have been undertaken, and to be grounded on moral principles salient in much of the sub-Saharan anticolonial and anti-apartheid tradition.