Staff at Wits University Threatened

Dear academic colleagues

We are writing to ask for you to take a moment to respond to a grave threat that has been issued against academic staff at Wits University in Johannesburg: a threat which sets a worrying trend for times to come for all of us who teach at universities.

The backdrop is the militarisation of our university in the last few days in response to student protest. Private security forces which by appearance earn the label paramilitary have been brought onto our campus under undisclosed contracts and terms of engagement, in order to quell the sorts of protests that led successfully last year to a national agreement not to increase student fees for 2016. The South African student movement continues to fight for a fully publicly funded higher education system, but this year their planned protests have been pre-empted by the extraordinary act of using paramilitary forces to prevent disruption of the start of the academic year. We attach a photo here to give an indication of what this means for the conduct of our everyday lives on our own university campus.

Cops at Wits 2

We now work in a condition of occupation.

To come to the point of this request: on Friday this week the university sent an email that included a warning to staff that any resistance to the dictates of these private security forces amounts to a violation of our own terms of employment. This is a thinly veiled threat to discipline and potentially fire academic staff who refuse to recognise the authority of private security forces on the grounds of what still remains a public institution. This is a disgraceful act of intimidation against the rights of staff to peacefully protest the current structure of higher education in South Africa, as well as the occupation of our campus by paramilitary forces that, in at least one case — the company TSU Africa — have direct links to the repressive apparatus of the discredited apartheid regime.

Before the other materials mentioned, I copy below a statement that has been posted on social media, addressing South African colleagues. I urge you to read it, and if you are in agreement, to send an email of protest to our Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Adam Habib, at the address [email protected].

Please ask him
(a) to rescind this threat against our colleagues,
(b) to remove all private security forces from our campus, and
(c) to enter into earnest negotiations with relevant parties to see how the university community can offer a united front in the struggle for a publicly funded higher education system in South Africa. Please also circulate this email to other colleagues who might be supportive.

Your solidarity at this difficult time is one of the most important assets we have at our disposal. Concerned academic staff are meeting in the coming week on campus and we may also ask you to sign a petition on this issue. In the meantime, your personal intervention by writing a short message to our Vice Chancellor would be a most welcome contribution to the attempt to de-escalate this gravely worrying moment.

With many thanks

Concerned Wits faculty and staff

Statement on social media:

Today Wits management issued the following threat by email to staff who have not complied with the instructions of the paramilitary private security forces that have been brought onto campus in the last few days to prevent public protests by members of the Fees Must Fall movement:

"Some staff members have also tried to breach security protocols. We want to remind staff that the decision to bring additional security onto campus is an executive decision and that any member of staff who violates the University’s security protocols will be jeopardising the safety and security of our campus and thereby violating their own conditions of service."

It's not clear exactly who or what this refers to, but it strongly implies that staff who refuse to obey the orders of these paramilitary outfits are subject to disciplinary action, including, presumably, dismissal.

This threat is an act which brings shame upon the entire university community. No public information has been provided as to the mandate of these forces, their terms of engagement, how much they are being paid, and who is footing the bill. The university has also explicitly renounced outsourcing and committed itself to ending it. Under these conditions, it is at least understandable that staff might refuse to recognize the authority of employees of these private security companies in what is, after all, the space of a public institution. And even if staff do so unlawfully, it is contemptible that management would threaten them with dismissal for doing so. Even in the darkest days of apartheid repression, it is hard to imagine that Wits university management would have threatened to fire a member of staff who peacefully if unlawfully protested the political and economic structure of the higher education system.

Every academic in South Africa should write to Adam Habib ([email protected]) to protest in the most forceful terms available against this act of professional intimidation against our colleagues.