What HK can learn from South Africa in defusing social crisis

July 15, 2019 18:54
Former South African President Jacob Zuma showed his political savvy in managing a crisis triggered by the death of a student leader three years ago.  Photo: Reuters

Since the outbreak of the mass movement against the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, four young people in our city have reportedly taken their own lives for reasons linked to the proposed legislation.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a friend of mine, who is a civil servant, this question: why isn’t there any official mourning protocol in place for civilians who died during political assemblies or public events, such as the anti-extradition bill movement?

Even most of the people who aren’t fond of politics would probably find this rather unacceptable.

In any civilized society, human life should be given overriding priority and utmost respect.

Many governments around the world have formulated their own set of mourning protocol regarding deaths that take place during public events or mass social movements.

Under such protocol, officials are often sent to honor the dead regardless of their political stance and offer condolences to their families so as to avoid giving rise to any public impression that the government is being callous or indifferent to human casualties.

During my conversation with this friend, I cited a case that took place three years ago in South Africa involving a student leader named Benjamin Phehla.

Phehla, a student at the Tshwane University of Technology, had participated in a nationwide student movement known as “Fees Must Fall”.

Tragically, he was killed at a rally by a driver who rammed a vehicle into the crowd.

His death shocked the entire nation and provoked a huge public backlash.

Worried that the nationwide uproar against the student leader’s death could spin out of control, the then South African President Jacob Zuma immediately addressed the nation, during which he mourned Phehla's death and praised the student movement for having contributed to the country’s progress.

At the same time, Zuma acknowledged that university fees across the nation had become so unaffordable to the underprivileged that the entire higher education system must undergo drastic changes.

The president also pledged to set up a commission led by high-ranking officials to review the issue.

Separately, Dr. Blade Nzimande, the then minister of higher education and training (and now the minister of higher educationscience and technology), issued a statement, referring to Phehla as “a student who was looking forward to a bright future as a professional”.

What Nzimande actually meant was that the government and students were not in a state of confrontation, that the two sides were “partners” in pursuit of the same goal, i.e., a bright future.

Nzimande’s clever use of words in defining relations between the government and students has helped repair social rifts while avoided upsetting government supporters.

Zuma was forced to step down in February 2018 amid corruption allegations against him. Even though he was a highly controversial figure as president, he was capable when it comes to governance of the country.

The Tshwane University of Technology later established a scholarship named after Phehla, with the first awardee being his younger brother.

And thanks to the careful and skillful handling of the incident, Phehla’s death didn’t escalate into a full-scale political crisis.

As we can see, the skills shown by some African countries in managing crisis and the government protocol in handling emergency situations aren’t necessarily better than those in the self-proclaimed “Asia’s world city”.

However, these African countries have shown that they are more willing to take into account “the human dimension” in managing social crises.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 3

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal