/ 3 March 2017

Favour rigorous debate, not security

Regressive: Police at Wits University last year – a development that was resisted by the institution during apartheid. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Regressive: Police at Wits University last year – a development that was resisted by the institution during apartheid. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

A short paragraph titled “Security Enhancements” recently appeared in the University of the Witwatersrand’s internal newsletter. “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 university’s vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, that tenders had been solicited for a biometric security system. The next day I noticed a large new CCTV camera on the side of a building outside of my office window, and another being installed at a side entrance to Wits’s Central Block, ironically just renamed the Robert Sobukwe building.

Since the #FeesMustFall protests began in October 2015, Wits management has embarked on a “securitisation” project that has included police and private security presence on campus, court interdicts, student arrests and suspensions, and the installation of cameras inside and outside of buildings. Increased security has been the primary response to student protest. The short paragraph indicates it will remain so, indeed be amplified, in the coming years.

When a colleague proposed to Habib that this strategy might be a way of further criminalising our students, and creating a climate of fear and suspicion on campus, he responded 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 the tactics of the student movement, but to respond to its provocations with such increased security and surveillance is a regressive and unimaginative intervention in the life of a university. It is careless with scarce resources that should be spent on education, and it undermines the project of creating an open and autonomous campus, one of the most valuable assets for a working democracy. Why would a public university need to invest public resources in surveillance technology to protect itself from the public? Why would we need CCTV infrastructure to monitor the daily movements of our students, who we meet every day in our classrooms and offices?

Continued securitisation threatens the very nature of the public university. A university should have the highest obligation to protect critique, experimentation and dissent. The history of the liberal university proposes it should strive for the greatest 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 is to engage them in rigorous, provocative, contested conversation. And yet we see how university managements are leading with security, opening our institutions to the force of state power and collapsing university autonomy.

Resorting to teargas and espionage is the opposite of what a university should do in the face of dissent. 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 be addressed as public political process? We have seen next to nothing of our university leaders on the ground talking to students. They seem scared of our students, calling small groups of them up to management offices for negotiations that almost always fail. They seem more invested in sitting behind CCTV screens collecting intelligence for purposes of punishing students than they are of serious discussions.

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 of campus has been extreme. But if we cannot commit to processes that engage that intensity, if we run from it and resort to force, we are short-circuiting important and necessary political and pedagogical processes.

And 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 very limited notion of the public; that the incremental loss of government subsidy over the past 20 years has created a devastating privatisation of higher education. Students’ rage, even as it is intense, is not unfounded. They are angry about an institutional system that has changed minimally since the end of apartheid, and about an anti-apartheid generation that has presided over the maintenance of that system rather than its dismantling. Although their rudeness and their insistence might be unsettling, it is difficult to fault their anger.

University managers and government officials explain away increased security by invoking the sporadic violence that has accompanied student protest. They seem to be captivated by it, increasingly reading it as a unique expression of a problematic generation, or a result of third forces steering the students towards mayhem. We have seen how managers and commentators have made a fetish of violence, dislocating it from its entanglement with police brutality, from its connection to serious political claims. They treat instances of violence as though they define the entirety of the student movement, and can be used to straightforwardly justify any and all security responses. We must be frank about the fact that violence has become part of the repertoire of student politics. But it is not its driving dynamic, nor its general form. So the generalised hyper-securitisation mounting against it is not only unfounded but regressively changing the character of campus.

Protest, even violent protest, should not be surprising in our country. Libraries have been burning in townships for years. Burning barricades, violent confrontations with police, stones and petrol, these are political forms that have accompanied protest in the past 15 years, borrowing from anti-apartheid protest methods. South Africa has the world’s highest rates of protest, not at all surprising in a society as unequal and foundationally violent as ours. The student protests are not unique. Rather their surprise, their shock, is that they bring ongoing black protest into middle-class, historically white space.

No amount of security can hold back an inevitable demand for a fundamental change in this society. Fearful attempts to hold back that inevitable demand with security infrastructure will exacerbate 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 ethics, might be able to offer more productive, less defensive ways to encounter the demand.

After so much, it is unlikely that the demand will ever be pretty. But we 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 that future it calls for without violence as its midwife. We know that our society must still undergo its proper reckoning with apartheid, and the colonial period before it. It would be terrible if that reckoning had to be violent.

But the current trajectory of state and institutional management seems hell-bent on protecting processes that are increasingly losing legitimacy as adequate responses to the demand. And when the demand becomes more insistent, to crush it. This does not augur well for the future of our demo-
cracy. Securitisation is the too-quick, overly-reactive posture against the demand. It brokers in surfaces and symptoms, not in the deeper issues at hand, the issues we as educators should be at pains to understand, unpack, and address.

Those in favour of security measures at Wits tend to speak of them as “defending the university” but it is precisely the securitisation and consolidation of the current trajectory that is the risk to the future, not only of the university but of our social imagination. Twenty-five years ago the public could walk through campus from Braamfontein to Parktown, picnic on the amphitheatre lawns and enjoy the swimming pool. Students were arguing that the university should allow broader public access to the university’s libraries. Then a perimeter fence went up to protect Wits from a post-Group Areas city, an urban transformation that necessarily involved a redistribution of violence from township to city.

I have been to many university campuses around the world and almost none of them are gated. Universities are understood as belonging to the cities and the polities in which they reside, part of the intellectual and institutional resources of urban citizenship. A public university should be exactly that: in service of an open public intellectual life for the benefit of all. This should be a vision we hold despite the violent history and character of our society, and as a strategy in its redress. 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 corporatisation of the university — corporate bonuses for senior management, incentivised publishing, performance management systems introduced under Habib’s tenure — securitisation can be understood as a significant thrust in the privatisation, and the demise, of our public universities.

Ironically, although it is our radical students who are accused of presiding over the destruction of the future of the university, it seems more likely that a hawkish 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