Letter: The ‘professors of protest’ at UKZN respond to the M&G’s story

The professors protest

We, the so-called “Professors of Protest” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Pietermaritzburg, find the article and its front-page presentation in last week’s Mail & Guardian offensive and defamatory. As we see it, the article was clearly written by a journalist seeking sensationalist attention, one who lacks understanding of the knowledge industry of post-school education.

The suggestion that we, as academic and professional staff, sought to coach students in protest tactics with the aim of destabilising universities is ludicrous.

On the contrary, members of our group have on several occasions helped to avert or de-escalate potentially violent interactions through mediation with security forces and the securing of commitments to peaceful actions by students.

Quoting “impeccable sources” so as to paint our role as one of secrecy and subterfuge is disingenuous to staff who have put their bodies on the line to keep students safe from the security and police forces who have militarised our campus over the past few weeks. The article amounts to a metaphorical waterboarding of our reputations as academics.

The only factual aspect of the article was that staff and students interacted in the Colin Webb Memorial Hall. During the course of the week preceding September 30, we, as the “Professors of Protest” of UKZN Pietermaritzburg, used this venue as a space for teaching and learning – as we are employed to do – through lectures, discussions, performances and dialogues.

As a collective of staff from drama, media studies, religion and theology, gender studies and education, we chose to host and conduct lectures in this larger venue to offer a “safe” environment where students could reflect on the changing environment in the university.

It was precisely because of escalating violence towards students and increasingly desperate reaction by them that we felt that such a safe and dialogical space was necessary.

We found the terms of the court interdict to be positively draconian and the large presence of police and security personal utterly unconducive to the enabling environment the university is meant to be.

Because a key aspect of the court interdict is its barring of students from any gathering outside of teaching space, we believed it incumbent upon us to “create” a legal and constructive space for conversations about #FeesMustFall and the conditions on our campus. Our efforts to do so were informed by our academic expertise and supported by civil society organisations and faith communities, who offered prayers in solidarity – an act that under the interdict is “illegal”.

Throughout recent weeks we have publicly and institutionally raised our concerns directly with university management on numerous occasions about the militarisation of our campus, its negative effect on the academic environment and the anti-dialogical position taken by the university administration.

The space we provided during the week was a considered response to these challenges and the antagonism they fostered. Our work in Collin Web Hall was conducted openly and transparently, and was focused on helping students to find ways of engaging in creative, peaceful protest.

We also posed critical questions to the #FeesMustFall Movement about its reliance on patriarchal regimes of knowledge and power, all the while aiming to produce and imagine the university as a place where black students don’t experience alienation, hostility and violence.

Given the constant presence of journalists on our campus over the past 10 days, and our openness to engaging with the media, we are astounded and offended that your journalist at no point attempted to make contact with any of us to check the facts. Moreover, we are deeply disturbed that he felt at liberty to imply that we would have any hand in promoting acts of arson and malicious damage to property.

The article is a prime example of lazy journalism, reprinting misinformation from sources who themselves failed to establish the true nature of our actions, or were nowhere near the Pietermaritzburg campus at the time. We find the article slanderous and defamatory, and thus demand a public apology.

Although we find the article untrue and full of spurious claims, we embrace the designation “Professors of Protest”, despite the slanderous intent. If it means that we offer a space for free and critical dialogue about academic and financial exclusion; if it means decolonising the curriculum; if it means fighting, teaching and writing for social justice; if it means we put our bodies between students and security services to defend the right of our students to register their dissatisfaction, alienation and marginalisation; and, finally, if it means we defend the public university as a space for critical dialogue and exchange, then we are, proudly, Professors of Protest. – Dr Federico Settler, sociology of religion; Pumelela Nqelenga, drama; Dr Clint le Bruyns, director, theology and development; Dr Mari Haugaa Engh, gender studies, applied human sciences; Dr Jane Quinn, education; Dr Anne Harley, education, director of the Paulo Freire Project; Ntokozo Madlala, drama; Dr Wilhelm Meyer, biblical studies; Fiona Jackson, media studies; Tamantha Hammerschlag, drama; Sithembiso Zwane, Ujamaa Centre; Dr Felipe Gustavo Koch Buttelli, theology and development

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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