On the morning of Sunday September 18 a petition titled “PrivateSecurityMustFall – UCT” was drafted asking five clarifying questions on the renewed use of private security on the campus in the context of a resurgence of campus protests along with a final demand to terminate the contract and redeploy the funds to clear student debt and bolster workers’ salaries.
This garnered over 300 signatures within the space of five hours before it was urgently delivered to the Vice Chancellor, Registrar and Chair of Council at 6pm that very evening. The urgency of the demand for clarity was very clearly to identify the scope and capabilities of the private security forces over what seemed like an inevitable week of protests, ultimately this was confirmed through the campus shutdown of the entire week. From Monday September 19 the university management responded to the demands, which clearly solicited a public response, through a private e-mail and took the decision (whether passively or actively) to refuse to publish the response publicly on their website.
After I took it upon myself to share the response to the petition publicly on my Facebook page, condemning UCT Communications and Marketing Head Gerda Kruger of censorship, I received an e-mail from her directing me to a private security statement issued in January that we agitated for and she went on to request that I change my status, presumably to remove the accusatory note. This telling e-mail response demonstrated what is suspected by many, that UCT’s media team is constantly monitoring and collating information about students’ and staff’s online presence. In the context of increased securitisation and victimisation not only is this worrying but this is indicative of an organisation culture that is hell-bent on the use of power, control and repression as a means of quelling dissent.
This behaviour is congruent to their attitude of opacity and unconscionable evasiveness on the use of private security inherited from last year’s round of FeesMustFall protests. It was through numerous e-mails, petitions, videos and pictures conducted by student and staff activists that the information around even the name of companies and value of the contracts with private security even saw the light of day – this is something conveniently left out of all of the statements published online by the executive who have continuously obfuscated the flow of events of the release of information to cover their consistent participation in criminality.
Many of us have made the claim from the onset that the introduction of private security and the militarisation of campus would lead to violence. I would go further and challenge anyone to trace back the last two years of intensified protest at UCT campus and note the overwhelming majority of protests without incident while observing the rise of fire and damaging of property exponentially since the introduction of private security.
The private security has not managed to prevent much damage to property yet this is cited as one of their key objectives. In fact, while I witnessed the events of Shackville first-hand, it was worthwhile to note that campus security, the police and private security all watched the events unfold, including the burning of paintings, without intervening, and only proceeded to use violence and intimidation once the crowd had begun to calm and commence reflection on what had occurred. This when read alongside their contribution to the escalation of the events of the day raises serious questions about the actual intended purpose of private security presence as it comes up short of even conservative arguments on the protection of private property.
R2-million per month was the reported value of private security spending over that period, funds that materialised out of nowhere in a climate where we are collectively told there is no money for decent wages. As this initially was an “emergency” expenditure no procurement criteria or private security policy existed within the institution prior to the situation as the executive was forced to react to evolving conflicts on the ground using their chosen strategy of isolation, militarisation and finally systematic exclusion. In the latest implementation more than six months later, as seen in the petition below, security is introduced once again without any criteria or transparency on their scope made clear to the public and the two private security firms have been rewarded with retainer contracts of up to R1 million for their sins sans reasonable justification.
The private security company in use then and now, Vetus Schola, has been alleged to be implicated in incidents of common assault, sexual harassment and assault against students across a number of campuses. They also have an unsavoury record in the mining belt of South Africa where they have been used to quell union wage strikes using their characteristically forceful approach.
Moving back towards the present day, conflict appeared inevitable as Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande continuously stalled and abdicated himself from responsibility in relation to the question of fee increases. While this very process was happening many student activists from across the country were dealing with internal and external processes for charges laid by the university as a result of the previous round of protests. In UCT’s case, hundreds of thousands of rand was spent hiring venues off campus, top end lawyers as university prosecutors and an “independent” arbitrator to preside over an internal process that dragged over more than three to four months.
Parallel to this process, concerned students and allies co-signed a petition, “ShackvilleTRC”, and submitted the proposal to council several days before 16 June 2016 calling for restorative justice as a means of resolving the conflict and legacy of Shackville. This petition was never formally responded to by the registrar nor the council by official communication but only through aside conversations and half-hearted enquiries around “what a process like this would look like”. This continued for months; the university and several civil society organisations remained hesitant to put a foot forward as the call boldly recommended a national process to encompass the events of other campuses, essentially problematising the use of the civil and criminal justice systems as a means to resolve and create space for justice in the wake of conflict and violence.
Now here we are, in the third week of September and institutions such as UCT now suddenly want to engage and materialise these calls for restorative justice after continuously isolating, demonising and in many cases ignoring pre-emptive measures to address the left over issues from 2015 and early 2016. This, in my view, is unquestionably a failure on the part of the senior leadership group that we are all paying severely for. In their renewed attempts to gain control of the situation and seize the narrative away from their consistent failings, proposals for an “Institutional Reconciliation Process” have been made by the executive appealing primarily to staff, in my view, in an attempt to isolate the protesters once again by obfuscating the central reasons why we have got to this point. It is precisely because the university has no intention of considering dropping the interdict or the expulsions that the prior call for a multistakeholder engagement on Shackville has become an open ended call for a multistakeholder “institutional reconciliation process”, undoubtedly with outcomes that are already a forgone conclusion, giving voice to the “White Tears” that have temporarily felt decentred by the recent goings on at the institution.
Reports from urgent university committee meetings summarised by student activist Thomas Mbewu below demonstrate the seriousness and urgency of this discussion in a rapidly degenerating situation.
The role of this explanation of the context of this supressed petition is simple. I would contend that UCT is laying the groundwork for further increased militarisation which is not only going to continue to cost us millions that we purportedly do not have but also will only continue to breed mistrust and inflame the situation even further than where it presently sits.
Once again I echo the calls for a ceasefire and the urgent implementation of a ShackvilleTRC primarily driven by terms of reference determined by students charged and affected by the incident, in mutual agreement with the University Exec and Representatives of council, while opening public hearings for multistakeholder engagement.
The findings or recommendations of a process like this may possibly produce a system wide “reconciliation” process that speaks to broader issues. Failure to acknowledge the centrality of the conflicts left outstanding will simply result in more disruption and the logical manifestation of violence in the face of a securitised impasse.
Our executive is manufacturing consent for private and state sanctioned violence and is crafting a situation where we are giving them blank cheques to militarise our public institutions. Much like how the United States reconstructs the notion of “terrorist” and “other”, the UCT PR machine is complicit and culpable of constructing students into the imagery of violent unthinking militants that is encouraging and fuelling an arms race that looks dead set for a lose-lose conclusion. DM