Campus security: Students are not the enemy

Professor Mia Swart writes that 'there is nothing as powerful as youthful anger constructively employed' and that that anger should lead to a culture of nonviolent protest. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Professor Mia Swart writes that 'there is nothing as powerful as youthful anger constructively employed' and that that anger should lead to a culture of nonviolent protest. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)


One of the astonishing features of the current wave of student protests is the fact that it took anyone by surprise that students, trapped in poverty and frustration, have chosen to do what students do worldwide when their voices are not heard.

But the protests did take university management by surprise. Management was as ill-prepared for the wave of protests as the Free State is for a tropical monsoon. When the storm did come, those in power took the path of least resistance.
By inviting the police and security on to campus, management opened the door for indiscriminate force and disproportionate measures used against students.

Clearly, our universities are paying the price for more than two decades of management complacency. But, instead of taking the modest and enlightened route of engaging students in effective communication and empowering them, they were treated with disrespect and disdain by police, private security companies and management. In many ways, poor students were punished twice: first for being poor, and second by the way they were treated during the protests.

The complacency itself is an indict­ment of management and our education authorities. It is a truth universally acknowledged that those propelled into positions of power and privilege often forget where they came from. Some vice-chancellors want their cake and to eat it.

They want to flaunt their struggle credentials when it suits them but preserve the status quo when existing certainties are threatened. This, with their membership of the new moneyed elite, means that they are facing a crisis of credibility.

The relatively exorbitant salaries of vice-chancellors were recently published in the media. Gauteng vice-chancellors are not doing too badly. Unisa’s rakes in more than R4-million a year. These are the vice-chancellors who got their positions partly because of their struggle pasts. These are the vice-chancellors who should see themselves in the faces of the protesting students. But in some ways they have betrayed the struggle, old and new.

Every right-thinking South African should be critical of the aggressive securitisation and policing of some of our campuses, notably at the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand. At UJ, where I teach, the police have regularly barricaded the entrances of the university, even on days when there were no protests. Muscled men wearing black shirts from the private security company Fidelity are present all over campus. Peter Alexander, the director of the Centre for Sociological Research at UJ, calls them the blackshirts.

The mere presence of these men creates tension and hostility. Students without the requisite student card struggle to get on to campus. It is one thing to call in security when violent actions are imminent or are taking place. It is quite different to populate campus with security and police on peaceful days.

It is simply not good enough to argue that they are there “just in case” violence erupts or because it is anticipated that violence might erupt. Such heavy security clashes with the ethos of universities and with academic freedom. Universities should be free spaces of experimentation and youthful inquiry. This is being stifled by the unimaginative way in which management has quelled the protests.

By pitting police against students, management has imputed criminality. Students should never be treated as criminals or potential criminals. What has happened to good old-fashioned campus security?

By overreacting in this way, management has also exposed their own fear and paranoia and exacerbated existing tensions.

Students protesting at Luthuli House. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

For good reason, the South African Police Service is one of the least trusted institutions in South Africa. Why trust them with our students? Today, 40 years after the 1976 uprisings, management should know better. More than three years after Marikana, management should know better.

In a joint statement, Gauteng vice-chancellors have justified their actions by essentially using the “bad apples” argument. They state, in essence, that the majority of students should not be prevented from registering and pursuing their studies because the minority has chosen to be disruptive.

To them the bad apples are corrupting the good. They should remember that, not so long ago, they were regarded as the bad apples.

In explaining Wits’s decisions, the enfant terrible among our vice-chancellors, Adam Habib, writes that the “old man from Limpopo” who scraped all his money together for his grandson’s studies was severely affected. As Natasha Vally, a PhD fellow at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, cleverly points out, the #FeesMustFall movement is precisely that an old man should not have to use all his money. His grandson should be able to study for free.

The old man from Limpopo argument just doesn’t cut it. Habib is a man who can sell snow to the Eskimos. Let us not buy his ideas only because they are so charmingly packaged and presented. He would be the first to insist that his views should be vigorously challenged.

Wits hosts three different security companies. One company, Tactical Support Unity, has been described as a paramilitary force. Incidents of disproportionately aggressive action by security guards at Wits have been reported over the past few weeks. Security guards have interfered in incidents that had nothing to do with the protests. This casts doubt on the legality of the work of the guards. What is their mandate?

Jane Duncan, a professor of journalism at UJ, has compiled a report on human rights violations during the police violence during the November protests at UJ. She documents cases of hitting, punching, slapping, kicking and throttling of protesters by security guards and the police. Students were also intimidated, harassed, threatened and pepper-sprayed. In Duncan’s view, interdicts granted to the university have been misapplied to arrest students.

A commission of inquiry, the most impotent of solutions, will not cut the mustard. The constitutionality of these actions will need to be tested. On the face of it, section 17 of the Constitution, the right to peaceful protest, has been violated.

The Regulation of Gatherings Act states that a protest should only be dispersed under the most extreme of circumstances.

The reactions to the protests have sinister political overtones. A member of Stellenbosch University’s management was recently reported to have stated that the university’s management acted under a government directive.

It is safe to assume that this was the case for other universities as well. Investigating this claim may open a Pandora’s box but it is a box that cannot stay shut. The ruling party’s attempts to encroach on university autonomy cannot be resisted passionately enough.

Interdicts, police and security guards should be measures of last resort. As the new academic year broke, one had the sense these were the unimaginative measures of first resort. The brutalist architecture of UJ campus, intended to symbolise a laager to keep out the swart gevaar, has now become a laager to keep out students, the lifeblood of the university. This irony is lost on the management.

The heavy-handed securitisation of universities is the antithesis of democracy, debate and critical thinking. Private security companies should not profit from being appointed as the guardians of our collective wellbeing.

There is nothing as powerful as youthful anger constructively employed. We should convert the intense anger into something new and exciting: the creation of a culture of nonviolent protests in which the police have no place and in which no bully or blackshirt can mute us. I am sure even the old man from Limpopo would like this.

Mia Swart is a professor of international law at the University of Johannesburg.

Mia Swart

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