Maverick Citizen


Wits management’s ‘divisive and repressive’ clampdown on student protests only reinforces injustice

Wits management’s ‘divisive and repressive’ clampdown on student protests only reinforces injustice
Protesting Wits University students make their way through campus on 2 March 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

This is an open letter from Wits academics regarding the current student protests at the university, the way that these have been handled by Wits management, and the national education funding crisis.

As of 14 March 2023, 55 academic staff members at Wits have put their names down in support of this statement. Over 200 further solidarity signatories include academic and administrative staff as well as students across 12 higher education institutions nationwide. 

Wits ‘for good’ – but for whom?

We write as academic staff at Wits to express our concern about recent events at our university, and especially at the framing of the situation by Wits management in its public communications.

The Wits community is not the same as Wits management, so we wish to offer another point of view. In doing so we join other statements of dissent from within our community, including from our academic staff union, ASAWU.

A national crisis or a disruption?

Most importantly, management has portrayed the events of recent weeks as a conflict between a minority of “disrupters” – whom it maligns as opportunistic and academically weak – and a majority of “deserving” students who simply wish to study.

Yet the student movement’s protests are precisely about the simple wish to study.

We are in a national socioeconomic crisis. This crisis has deep historical roots in the injustices of apartheid. It has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and by the failure of the state to provide adequate social security and effective public services. Most South Africans live in households facing imminent disasters such as hunger and default on debt.

As a result, many thousands of returning students nationally, who succeeded in their studies in 2022 and are qualified to continue, do not have the means to meet the large up-front payments now demanded for re-registration. The same applies at Wits.

Wits management says that 96% of our students were registered on time.

wits protest

Wits academics say that management is authoritarian and silencing the voice of impoverished students. (Photo: Supplied)

Yet there are tens of thousands of returning students annually at Wits. The seemingly small figure of an excluded 4% represents more than 1,000 individuals just at our own university who have qualified academically yet are excluded from their studies.

Read in Daily Maverick: 

Wits management promises firm action against ‘disruptors’ after students protest in city streets

SRC puts protest action at Wits University on 24-hour ice, but warns against further suspension of student leaders

Then there are those who have been able to register but are excluded by conditions such as the enlarged accommodation crisis following changes in NSFAS funding.

This is the situation to which student activists are responding. Compared to previous movements such as those of 2015-16, their demands are in fact very modest: can we please have access to classes and to beds?

Who is threatening the university?

Protest is entirely legitimate under these circumstances. We find it especially disturbing that management’s response has been to demonise protesting students, and apply heavy-handed legal and security tactics against them.

An interdict against protest allowed for the police to be brought onto our campus in situations of conflict that do not remotely approach what was seen in 2015-16.

Wits management additionally employed groups of private security who seem to have little training in handling difficult situations except through violence. They punched and manhandled students, and in certain cases threw rocks at groups of protesters. In at least one instance staff and students were locked into a building where physical fights were happening between private security and protesters. There was no way to leave if the situation became dangerous.

When protesting students’ acts are alleged to compromise public safety, management suspends those students immediately – or, in the case of the SRC president, their leader.

What about those in management responsible for the command of the external private security that they recruit? What are the consequences for managers when people they bring onto campus engage in acts of public violence and endangerment?

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There are also serious consequences for protesting students accused of bringing Wits into disrepute.

What about those who have brought the university into public disrepute (and ridicule) by banning the press from campus? That ban was reversed after swift and broad condemnation by civil society, but the damage to our reputation as a university striving for openness was done. This is also a worrying sign of authoritarian instincts in a situation of tension.

Equal access to the classroom

We also think it misleading for Wits management to say that the teaching programme has proceeded almost entirely successfully online. Many colleagues report very low attendance in sessions switched online in the face of the shutdown.

These attendance rates reflect not just boycotts of classes but a much broader problem of infrastructural justice.

Read in Daily Maverick:UCT protests: ‘Clearly something has to change; there is a bigger story to this’

Many of our students do not have data sufficient for video-conferencing or other active digital engagements. Management has belatedly agreed to roll out some data access in April, which we applaud, but April will be too late in the semester for those who have missed online classes.

wits protest

Students trying to get into the Great Hall at Wits University clash with security guards on 2 March 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

Even those with data often live in parts of Johannesburg where cellular connections cannot sustain the bandwidth needed. Those in townships are disproportionately affected by the loss of electricity and water supply. Nor do they always have adequate conditions for study at home.

The resort to online teaching assumes a comfortable, connected and private suburban infrastructure. This is at odds with the situations of most Wits students.

All of the students recently excluded from online classes will have to be helped to catch up when in-person teaching eventually resumes. This annually creates an unacknowledged and uncompensated extra workload too, for lecturers and tutors as well as administrators.

A call on university leaders

What is most disappointing is that our national socioeconomic crisis makes itself visible year after year on campuses when students are trying to make arrangements for studies and housing. 

They wish to learn, they qualify academically to do so, yet they are excluded by financial circumstances beyond their own control.

Nonetheless, when there are protests against this injustice, these are miscast year after year by South African university managements, including our own, as extraordinary disruptions by small groups of students whom they think they can simply punish into submission.

Where is the institutional and national foresight to plan for and pre-empt these entirely predictable annual circumstances?

In the absence of such foresight, the fallout of our collective crisis in higher education falls year after year on the shoulders of students from impoverished households, and on academic, administrative and support staff whose emergency interventions and extra workloads allow the survival of the academic project under these dehumanising circumstances.

In such circumstances we cannot afford a divisive and repressive approach from management. This approach is heedless to the inequities of our wider national society. It only reinforces those injustices in our immediate campus community.

We encourage those who manage Wits to reconsider their choices, to stop demonising those of our students who protest, and to see this as a shared problem that demands management’s solidarity – both now and before we find ourselves right back here again in March 2024. DM/MC

For a full list of current Wits academic staff signatories as well as other supporters, who include colleagues and students from many South African universities, click here.

Please consider adding your name to our call here.


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