Student protesters have done honour to themselves, and their University

May 31, 2024

For weeks encampment protests in universities have been occurring throughout Australia. Media coverage has to a significant extent been adverse, and undeservedly so. The public record suggests the protestors have been overwhelmingly well-behaved. And yet, Vice-Chancellors are said to have been pressed to stop the protests. There has even been conjecture that offending students might be disciplined in some way. Can we be assisted by history in this instance?

On Tuesday 28 May, the protestors at Adelaide University marked the end of their encampment (but not their continuing campaign of protest) with a rally adjacent to the Maths Lawn where they had been encamped for some months. Speakers stood on the old, eastern, entrance to the Barr-Smith Library building to address such protestors as were about, and other persons in attendance.

I attended and my memory did not fail me. I recall participating, as a student, in a similar event at exactly the same site in 1971, to protest apartheid in South Africa. Speakers at this week’s protest, in support of the protestors, also railed against apartheid, in this instance, in Israel.

Were we, the 1971 protestors, in any way prejudiced by our actions? Were we disciplined in any way? Were we marked down in our courses, or whatever?

Let me inform. At about the same time a group of us protested the Springboks seeking to play rugby at Norwood Oval in eastern Adelaide. Some 40 of us were arrested for being unlawfully on the Oval – we had run onto the ground and sat in the middle of a scrum. I will not name names but a number were law graduates, and one at least attained high judicial office in his later career. We were all taken to the Adelaide Police Station and locked up for a few hours before being released after the paperwork had been done. My clearest recollection is two of the police officers saying to us: “we support what you have done”!

A week or so later I attended at the law office of Elliot Johnston QC to apply for a position as an articled clerk in his firm. Immediately after commencing the interview, he asked me: “Did I read that you were arrested for being on the Norwood Oval last week?” (or words to that effect). I immediately thought, “Oh, I’ve ruined my chances here”. But I couldn’t lie, and so I answered, “Yes”. Elliot immediately extended his hand and said: “Welcome to the firm”.

It doesn’t end there. A few weeks later the protestors had to face the reckoning. All forty or so attended at the Adelaide Magistrates Court and appeared before Magistrate Gerri Fiala. One by one our names were called. The Magistrate said to each: “How do you plead?” and when each and every one of us said “Guilty” the prosecutor gave details of the participation of the particular defendant. The Magistrate then said, to each: “Have you anything to say before sentence?” My recollection is that about one in four took this opportunity to express their concerns over the then South African regime. Some spoke for some minutes, even up to 10! The Magistrate did not interrupt any speech, not once. After each had pleaded guilty and either not spoken, or finished his speech (I don’t recall that there were any young women unfortunately), Magistrate Fiala said, in a dull monotone: “$10 fine, $4 court costs”. The accumulating impression was amazing – he obviously approved of our conduct and this was his way of conveying it.

So let me say this. The then – the 1971 students – honoured themselves by their protest. The two police officers honoured themselves and SAPOL by their expressed support. The profession was honoured by Elliot Johnston and his response. The Magistrate did honour to South Australian judiciary by his common sense.

Return to today. All of the protestors at Maths Lawn these last few months have done honour to themselves, and their University. The University of Adelaide has done honour to itself by respecting the students’ protest of apartheid and genocide. Apartheid lived on in South Africa for another twenty years. We do not presently know how long it will last in Israel, but it will end. The protestors will end up on the right side of history.

I know that readers of P&I will appreciate the lesson of history, and do honour to all student protestors around the country.

 

Related Article: “From the river to the sea”, May 14, 2024.

“From the river to the sea”

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