UCT’s TRC a weapon in proxy war
In “UCT initiates reparation and healing” (May 5), Professor Penelope Andrews, dean of the law faculty at the University of Cape Town, paints a sympathetic background to the campus protests of the 2015 to 2016 period by acknowledging South African society’s inability to reckon with the effect of colonialism as a justification for initiation of the Institutional Reconciliation and Truth Commission (IRTC) process.
The article avoids key specific dynamics about how this particular process came to be, crafting a narrative that conveniently positions the university as being pre-emptive and at pains to resolve the crisis. I believe this to be an intentional strategy to lay the trap for heavy repression during the next cycle of protests.
On February 16 last year, protests accompanied the erection of a shack on a low traffic-bearing road on UCT campus — an act that was meant to bring awareness to an inflaming housing crisis.
This conflict, coming off the back of months of contestation involving police and private security during the #FeesMustFall protests, quickly descended into chaos after delegates of vice-chancellor Max Price demanded it be removed.
Paintings were infamously burned and private security assaulted students and destroyed the shack in an act evidently intended to demoralise.
Before the evening was over, fires broke out across parts of the campus and numerous students were arrested. Just after midnight, characteristically, an interdict was granted to the university including names of people seen to be involved as well as “troublemakers” the administration hoped to link to the activity.
Unfortunately, I fell into the latter category and was banned from the campus for more than a month, along with several others, as the university spooks tried and failed to pin collective actions on to individuals. For those directly involved, a double approach of suspension and court-ordered limitations of access were imposed by the institution.
Prior to this event, debates about private security, their role in inflaming conflict and the extent to which policing should be allowed on the campus were far from resolved. At this point the university did not have rules or guidelines for the use of force by private security, which was being deployed for crowd control, essentially as a way to bypass the protocols of public order policing.
Before the ash had cooled, Andrews’s law department proceeded to publish the first and only department endorsement of the use of private security in the wake of the Shackville incidents.
More interestingly, a statement made by a Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority official during a public engagement with the Right2Know campaign indicated that no training or certification for dealing with protests existed in the private security space.
Shortly after the interdict was released, the UCT management team attempted to hold a “transformation dialogue” meeting with stakeholders to discuss the issue, months after it had been raised and directly after events that would have benefited from its decisiveness had already come to pass.
This sitting was disrupted by students who believed that it was unjust to debate the issues while their comrades remained barred from the institution for raising many of the same issues. The initiative, like many of its kind, collapsed and to my knowledge was essentially dissolved.
Thereafter a number of protests from political party organisations such as the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania along with appeals from nonaligned students, staff and alumni called for pardon for protesters who now faced punitive procedures in the university disciplinary system.
I drafted a petition calling for a #ShackvilleTRC, which garnered more than 1 000 signatures, international letters of support and an essay that was published in the Daily Maverick. The submissions were met with indifference and the suggestion that the proposal was “vague”, yet no feedback from the council or UCT management endeavoured to pursue how clarity would be obtained.
As solidarity strikes continued for those locked out of the institution, it was only a matter of time before the cause #BringBackOurCadres connected with the resurgence of the #FeesMustFall-related demands and outstanding worker demands towards the end of September 2016.
This, predictably, resulted in more mass action, political conflict and charges but did precipitate an agreement that managed to “win” the space of a restorative justice process that would deal with the events of Shackville and late 2016. But it modified the initial proposals of #ShackvilleTRC to include dialogues and some, ironically vague, engagements on institutional culture and so on giving rise to the IRTC process.
It’s important that we understand that the disillusionment of the “transformation dialogue” platform is recouped in a moment when the student movement needed to make a trade for pardons for protesters towards the end of 2016. On the surface, the notion of the dialogue on institutional culture stands in contradiction to the popular rhetoric of the movement and its analysis of how the contradictions underpinning UCT and beyond are to be resolved.
One then wonders whether, should it come to fruition, the institutional dimension of the IRTC will even reach completion.
What is missing, then, in Andrews’s account is where we locate the IRTC in South African history and more specifically the cynical nature of the initial proposal. In fact, #ShackvilleTRC was proposed to demonstrate the hypocrisy of liberal institutions such as UCT and their affinity for forgiveness narratives around crimes of apartheid by means of the IRTC founding agreement, which shows that UCT management sees restorative justice as a question that relates to power and not justice.
It was not by means of dialogue or a moral “Damascus moment” that restorative justice was found to be the way to go. It was by mass action that they realised it was no longer politically feasible to use punitive measures so crassly. So no, Professor Andrews, I don’t think “UCT initiates reparation and healing”; I think the IRTC simply presents another terrain of the proxy war for the institution’s future.
Dialogues such as those alluded to in the IRTC process will not resolve primary sources of conflict. They exist beyond campuses. But I will admit that more spaces for dialogue provide the opportunity for contestation and potentially create a window for some transitional gains to be made.
What UCT is initiating, however, is a careful revisionism. Protests will continue to loom as the form of the structural critiques levied to date remain wholly intact. It will only be a few more months before we see the fruits of this reframing work as some of the institution’s leaders attempt to reassert themselves as the “reasonable” party and the other groups remain insurgent and violent.
This allows them to continue justifying the seemingly unending sums of public money available for private security and punitive measures to repress the annoyance of a creeping political dissent that has now become a permanent fixture in Rhodes’s ivory tower.
Brian Kamanzi is a master’s student in the engineering and built environment faculty of the University of Cape Town