/ 21 January 2016

Battle rages over private security on campus

A security detail in front of the Wits Great Hall. Students and university administrators are at loggerheads over the use of private security guards on campuses in South Africa.
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University management and students have found common ground on some issues of funding and outsourcing, but neither are budging on the use of private security guards on campus.

The guards have resorted to violence and are prone to sexual harassment, students say. There is no proof of this and no alternative, says university managements. So the debate about what some call the militarisation of campuses rages on.

In December last year, some academics at the University of Johannesburg wrote an account of what transpired between private security and protesting students: “… hitting, punching, slapping, kicking and throttling protesters; using pepper spray; beating protesters with batons; stripping their clothes off; threatening, intimidating, or harassing students that were involved in the protests; intimidating the protesters’ legal representative and interfering with her work; and at least in one case carrying a weapon loaded with live ammunition during a student protest”.

The presence of private security, particularly at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, this week raised the question of how to balance allowing nonprotesting students to register on campus this week, while still giving protesting students the space to do so without harassment or the threat of violence.

Wits’s vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, fiercely defended the guards this week, saying it was aimed at preventing violence – for example, at the hands of the police, who are not under management control.

The campus was largely peaceful after initial disruptions of registration, with a court interdict seeming to hold. Security guards manned the entrance to the Wits Great Hall. In the lobby, guards slouched on seats, with little to occupy their time. Outside, private and campus security checked student cards, monitoring the traffic in and out of the hall.

Although it brought order, concerned students and staff described the campus as being “on lockdown”. For a member of the public, the university was accessible, although the presence of security was felt.

But, for students, allegations that members of security had assaulted students on Tuesday, including sexually harassing them, made their ­presence untenable. Wits management denied that any such incidents took place, and said closed-circuit surveillance footage could prove it.

Similar allegations, and denials, have been repeated elsewhere.

A student at Stellen­bosch University and supporter of both Open Stellenbosch and the #Fees Must Fall campaigns told the Mail & Guardian of two instances of sexual harassment by private security on campus this year. She described how groups of security men, in one case five of them, made advances, then verbally abused her when she did not respond. “It really angered and irritated me. They’ve been hired to watch us and they’re against us,” she said.

She had not lodged a formal complaint, she said, because it would not be taken seriously.

Edward Deeka, the head of operations at Pro Events, one of the security companies hired by Stellenbosch University, said it had received no complaints about its guards.

“There’s nothing been reported and, if there [is], we will investigate it. But up to date, there’s never been allegations of security harassing any students,” he said.

Private security organisations may be given orders by those who hire them, unlike the police, but they face constraints of their own, some of which can lead to complications in campaigns such #FeesMustFall.

The private security industry is regulated by legislation, which requires the minister of police to develop a code of conduct for the industry. This says that security service providers may not act in a way that “harms the public or the national interest”.

They are also not allowed to detain or arrest anyone, or search or seize their property, although the code contains a caveat: “unless such conduct is reasonably necessary in the circumstances and is permitted in terms of law”.

A student was allegedly “arrested” by either campus or private security guards at Wits last week after allegedly damaging a car, according to students on social media. But eyewitnesses say the student was escorted to the police, and that students became angry, threatening the security guards, who did not respond.

Public-order police were stationed outside Wits this week, on call only if students did not abide by the interdict.

By Tuesday, student representatives and Wits management had agreed on several issues. Among these was an assurance that the police would not use “undue force that violates any human rights”.

Concerned Wits staff members made public a letter in which they criticised the decision to bring private security on to campus. But, in response, Habib asked them what the alternatives were, saying the protesting students had prevented students from registering. In particular, he said this affected poor students who could not register online.

But fears that private security has overstepped, and will continue to overstep, their boundaries abound. – Additional reporting by Ra’eesa Pather