​Drones, biometrics and the public university

A short paragraph titled “Security Enhancements” appeared in the University of the Witwatersrand’s internal newsletter two weeks ago.

“The university is investigating the possibility of enhancing its security provisions on campus,” it read. “These enhancements may include biometric access control measures, drone surveillance and additional CCTV cameras.”

This followed an announcement by the vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, in a meeting with the faculty of humanities, that tenders had been solicited for a biometric security system at Wits. The next day I noticed a large new CCTV camera on a building outside my office window and walked past a worker installing another at a side entrance to the Robert Sobukwe building.

Since the #FeesMustFall protests began in October 2015, Wits’s management has embarked on a “securitisation” project that has included a police and a private security presence on campus, court interdicts, student arrests and suspensions, and the installation of cameras inside and outside buildings all over campus.

When a member of staff suggested this might further criminalise students and create a climate of fear and suspicion on campus, Habib said that, although the CCTV cameras were meant to monitor students, the biometric security was to protect us from the public.

We might not agree with all of the tactics and strategies of the student movement, but to respond to its provocations with blanket security measures and surveillance is not only a waste of resources but also a regressive and unimaginative intervention in the life of a university.

Increasing security at Wits threatens the very nature of the public university. A university should defend the maximal interpretation of freedom. It should have the highest obligation to protect critique, experimentation and dissent. Distinct from radical traditions of university experiments, such as community-oriented campuses, student-led curricula and the decolonisation of knowledge practice, it is the long, liberal history of the university that proposes it should strive for the greatest possible capacity to withstand disagreement and to treat disagreement not as a security risk but as a pedagogical challenge. If we don’t like what our students are doing and saying, our responsibility, our very social duty, is to engage them in rigorous, provocative, contested conversation.

We should lead with our classrooms and our ideas, not with institutional power and fear. What does it teach our future leaders that their dangerous ideas, their aspirations, should be crushed by state power rather than addressed as public political process?

It is true that encounters with our students can be rough: they are full of rage, humiliating, ferocious in their demands and in their exacting of accountability. The intensity on campus has been extreme. But, if we cannot commit to processes that engage that intensity, and if we run from it and resort to force, we are short-circuiting important and necessary political and pedagogical processes. We are doing exactly what we accuse the worst moments of the student movement of doing: forgoing democratic process in favour of violence.

Our students have brought an urgency to matters that have long been on public record: that our universities are racist and colonial institutions that serve a limited notion of the public, and that the incremental loss of government subsidy over the past 20 years has created a devastating privatisation of higher education, felt most keenly by the university through reduced resources and students in a year-on-year above-inflation increase in fees.

Students’ rage, intense as it is, is not unfounded. They are angry not only about a institutional and social system that has changed minimally since the end of apartheid but also about an anti-apartheid generation that has presided over the maintenance of that system rather than its dismantling. Although their rudeness and their insistence is unsettling, it is difficult to fault their anger.

We have seen how managers and commentators have begun to make a fetish of violence, dislocating it from its entanglement with police brutality, dislocating it from its connection to serious political claims. They have come to treat instances of violence as though they define the entirety of the student movement, and can be used to justify any and all security responses.

Protest, even violent protest, should not be surprising in our country. These are political forms that have accompanied township protest in the past 15 years, borrowing heavily from anti-apartheid protest methods.

No amount of security can hold back an inevitable demand for a fundamental change in the way this society is run. Attempts to hold that back with security infrastructure will exacerbate and flare whatever potential violence resides in its encounters.

What one would hope is that the university, with all its understanding of history, of society, of politics, of inequality, of language, of the repercussions of force, of ethics, might be able to offer a more productive, less defensive way to encounter the demand.

After so much, it is unlikely that the demand will ever be pretty. But we — and shouldn’t this be the very test of our education? — have the capacity to meet it with a regard not only for the unfinished work of liberation but also for how we might experiment with ushering in the future it calls for without violence as its midwife.

We know that our society must still undergo its proper reckoning with apartheid and the long colonial period before it. It would be terrible if that reckoning had to be violent. But securitisation is the too-quick, overly reactive posture against the demand. It brokers in surfaces and symptoms — and not in the deeper issues at hand —the issues we as educators should be at pains to understand, unpack and address.

A public university should be exactly that: in service of an open public intellectual life for the benefit of all.

The most cynical interpretation of the demand for “access” to the university would be that students should hand over their biometric data to be let into a fortress in which they are constantly under surveillance. It is as unimaginative as it is unsustainable.

When read alongside the creeping corporatisation of the university — corporate bonuses for senior management, incentivised publishing, performance management systems — securitisation can be understood as a thrust in the privatisation, and the demise, of our public universities. Ironically, students are accused of presiding over the destruction of the future of the university, but it seems a cadre of higher education leaders will go down in history as having done more damage.

Kelly Gillespie is head of the anthropology department at the University of the Witwatersrand.

 

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