On February 24, University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Black Academic Caucus (BAC) led a silent protest in the wake of violence on the campus two weeks ago – and in the immediate wake of further violence at  North West University (NWU), the University of the Free State (UFS) and other universities across the country.

In BAC’s own words, the “silent protest is about the different forms of violence that are being silenced on our campuses in the current crisis: structural, physical, psychological, symbolic and emotional violence”.

As on other campuses, the violence has polarised students, staff and members of the public who have engaged with events at UCT. Communication between UCT’s management and #RhodesMustFall (#RMF) also seemed adversarial. #RMF built Shackville (a shack below a section of Jameson steps in the middle of a road on campus) in protest against the university’s failure to deal adequately with the student housing crisis. In the escalation of the conflict between management and #RMF, other forms of violence were pushed aside. The protest hoped to draw attention to these other forms of violence.

Shackville could be read as a mash-up: two incongruous objects are juxtaposed in the same space. On the one hand, you have the UCT brand, which has come to signify research excellence and elitism. The brand and the university website are essential to presenting UCT as a key destination for bright students, leading scholars as well as generous donors and rich alumni. UCT is therefore presented in corporate terms, as if it were a corporation (and not a public institution).

On the other hand, Shackville presents the dark underside to the use of corporate strategies at public institutions. The act of building a shack on campus, especially in a prominent spot, undermines UCT’s attempts to protect its brand. The shack signified racialised class exclusion and points to the price marginal black subjects have to pay for the kind of elitism that historically white and wealthy institutions, like UCT, have come to represent.

UCT’s response to Shackville was to lay down an ultimatum for the relocation of the shack and hasten the plot to a confrontation, instead of allowing this powerful statement to stand in its prominent position as an acknowledgement that research-led institutions in functional democracies embrace debate and contestation –even (or especially) when ‘disruptions’ are inconvenient and make ‘business as usual’ awkward. In fact, the number of ‘service delivery’ protests occurring nationwide on a weekly basis, as well as protests at universities across the country suggest that we cannot operate as if it were ‘business as usual’.

The university had already admitted that it was at fault -notwithstanding additional remarks that attempted to qualify this admission. Allowing Shackville to stand as a form of mea culpa might actually have produced an entirely different outcome. As the Dean of Humanities, Sakhela Buhlungu, said in his communication to his faculty, some developments were avoidable. To put it bluntly, the violent confrontation at Shackville was avoidable.

In the end, it seemed as if a particular performance of violent masculinities was being acted out, leading to outcomes that left #RMF critics feeling vindicated in their criticism of student activism as well as others who were sympathetic to the students’ cause feeling conflicted about the violence. At the same time, stories about the violence of private security staff started to emerge. Some of the questions regarding the use of private security on university campuses that emerged in debates with colleagues were:

1. Some private security staff appear to have a military background. Is this true?

2. What does the heavy presence of private security do to institutional culture on campus?

3.If it is true that private security are profiling staff and students, what are the implications in terms of staff sand students’ safety on campus? What do these private security companies do with the data that they gather about activists –both now and in the years to come? Is there a chance that personal data could be sold in the future?

4. Is it not ironic that a great deal of money is being spent on private security whilst three UCT students have been raped since December last year?

5. Are women safe on campus? MiCampus Magazine reports that female students are complaining about being cat-called and sexually harassed at Wits.

6. To whom do private security account and what is their mandate?

The third set of questions may seem paranoid, but in talks with student activists about the Shackville arrests the story that is emerging is that private security worked with SAPS and that particular protestors were targeted. Apparently, one injured protestor was pursued right down to the M3 and then brought back to upper campus, the site of conflict. I am told that the injured protestor was assaulted by private security in the drive back to upper campus.

On February 19 Lihle Ngcobozi, a student activist at Rhodes University was “harassed” and “manhandled” by two white males in police uniform on the streets of Grahamstown.

Ngcobozi recounted what happened on a Facebook post: “One came from behind me and the other in front of me. One grabbed my arm while shaking it telling me that they know I am Lihle Ngcobozi, [that] I must stop what I am doing. [That] I must also tell my ‘friends’ to stop what they’re doing otherwise we will see what happens. They then got into a private black car and drove off.”

At the silent protest on Wednesday, a colleague overheard an exchange on a security officer’s two-radio. A photographer was being instructed to take close-ups of each silent protester’s face and of their placard. The silent protest took place on the same day of severe violence at North West University (NWU), where it appears live ammunition was fired (as visuals of 9mm cartridges on the scene suggest), one pregnant student reportedly miscarried and another student was seriously injured (and, apparently, not killed, as students first reported on social media).

The very troubling events at NWU and the heavy reliance on SAPS and private security on university campuses need to be read in the broader context of remarks made by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who claimed that students are actually being trained by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as if an overthrow of the ANC government is being plotted.

Troublingly, News24 reports that State Security Minister David Mahlobo claims that South Africa would be able to defend itself in the event of an attempted coup d’état.

Government’s response to the national crisis at universities is being treated in securocratic terms, and not in political terms. In fact, neither the president nor education minister Blade Nzimande have engaged directly with recent events – it would appear that no attempt at direct dialogue with students on the ground is being made by government.

Government is certainly not taking in the criticism that activists are levelling at it and, instead, they are ready to deploy repressive apparatus to stifle the various movements that are emerging. It is tempting to suggest that government is unresponsive to the crisis, but it is producing a response: One of violence and polarising talk of treasonous plots. It therefore feels justified in employing repressive apparatus.

This is not very different from the decision by Wits or UCT to make use of private security. Recently, I have heard arguments that the events at UCT vindicate Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib’s decision to make use of private security – student activists are the enemy and heavy security measures need to be in place for our own safety. South Africa has entered its own war on terror. Critique has, once again, become treason. While we have been talking about the neoliberal capture of universities and its negative impact on higher education, securocrats have taken over university campuses.  The two go together rather well.

*Haupt is a member of the Black Academic Caucus

Main photograph: BAC protest at UCT this week by Adam Haupt

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