Over the last few weeks, we have seen intense policing and private security at various university campuses across the country. This followed an announcement by the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande that universities will determine their own fees for 2017, with increases capped at 8%- a move that was merely a passing of the buck to university managements.
Since then, we have watched both police and private security unleash unwarranted, unprovoked and disproportionate force against protestors, by-standers, academics, support staff and security personnel themselves.
So-called leaders also added fuel to the fires with their inflammatory comments calling for the army to be deployed to campuses and that “students want their own Marikana”. This was further fuelled by the Acting National Police Commissioner, Khomotso Phahlane, who reportedly said that “the police cannot guarantee that lives will not be lost during the protest”.
These are irresponsible comments that only serve to both justify police brutality against protestors.
To justify the dangerous securitisation and militarisation of campuses, many institutions have invoked safety, clearly not recognising that the safety of all should be considered- including protestors, who have experienced a lot of violence themselves.
Students have complained about being sexually harassed by security on campus and at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), reports of a rape by a police officer surfaced. Journalists have been pepper-sprayed; there have also been allegations of security stealing from students and we have seen footage of indiscriminate shooting on campuses. At the Pretoria West campus of Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), a private security guard was arrested on for attempted murder after allegedly shooting live ammunition at students.
This means that those tasked with ensuring the safety invoked by universities, have in many instances been same ones causing bodily harm and trauma – showing just how miscalculated the securitisation and militarisation of campuses has been.
A task team looking into #FeesMustFall was announced by the Office of the President. What was immediately noticeable was that a significant number of members of the task team were initially from the security cluster, suggesting that the team is not about finding solutions but deepening repression.
Not only is this an ineffective way of handling the current crisis facing higher education institutions, but both security and police are clearly inadequately equipped to deal with protests. We have seen them treat protestors as threats that must be neutralised, rather than people requiring safety themselves – all at the invitation of university managements.
As far back as the 60s, there is a huge body of work showing how policing can escalate protest situations and that “abstaining from action can be the most potent weapon for public order policing”. Our police and security have a history of being unable to exercise restraint, so it is unthinkable that they are the very same ones being involved in resolving the matter.
It can’t be ignored that the increase in violence during the protests has been happening with the escalation of force on campuses, with this escalation having been needlessly happening on multiple occasions. And by inviting them in, management in fact enabled the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate force against students- something affirmed by Wits Independent Monitors at that campus.
Apart from this, the securitisation and militarisation has meant often exploited security guards and police facing students for reasons outside either party’s own making.
Sustained dialogue and negotiation is required to consider university funding models suggested by students; the ‘no fee varsity’ report and many other stakeholders, as well as resolving the many other factors hindering the realisation of free, decolonised, quality education.
And this will not be achieved through securitisation and militarisation, methods from South Africa’s history, a history which has contributed to why we find ourselves here. Now more than ever strong leadership, acting in good faith is needed from all parties not the shameful, hard-handed responses we are seeing.
The students are fighting a legitimate struggle, a struggle that fundamentally centres inequality, exploitation and exclusion. It is a struggle not just for themselves, but the many Black people who are unable to access the doors of learning. It’s for the thousands of Black students who started their studies, but were unable to complete due to financial exclusion. It’s about the Black kids who are still in school and those yet to be born, who will never make it in if nothing changes. It is a struggle from which even the children of the very same policemen and security guards stand to benefit.
To break this struggle is to break the hopes and dreams of many others even beyond the confines of our universities, which is precisely what the securitisation and militarisation are doing, rather than seeking real solutions.
* This is a slightly edited version of a post originally published by The Star.
– Featured image: There was a large police presence at Wits in October, with the SAPS cracking down on any potential protests. Photo: Greg Nicolson for the Daily Maverick.