This week, Minister of State Security David Mahlobo made some concerning claims about the need for increased surveillance of students and academics participating in the #FeesMustFall protests. This led to questions over the repression of rights, the accountability of state security mechanisms and the targeting of students and academics.
In October, director and senior lecturer at the Theology and Development Programme at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN), Clint Le Bruyns and Education lecturer Jane Quin were arrested on the Pietermaritzburg campus while engaging with students and members of the community. Le Bruyns spoke to The Daily Vox about his arrest, saying that academics and students have been targeted by the university and police.
We had called for a public dialogue to take place on Monday from 11 o’clock. It wasn’t a formal thing, just a matter of people standing together in small groups and having a conversation being led by members of the community. At about 11:45-11:50 I saw a group of about 20 SAPS members walking towards us, looking very intimidating. They surrounded us and said to us quietly, “this is an illegal gathering,” and they were going to carry out arrests. They arrested five students and two academics. They said they were arresting us in terms of the court interdict. It was not a gathering, and the interdict only referred to students and not staff.
There was no warning. We were just confronted and arrested. We were taken to the police vans and into custody. Around 10-15 minutes later, my colleague and I were released. They let us go with the warning for us to stop engaging with students. I said this was ridiculous because my core responsibility as an academic in South Africa is to engage with students.
The other thing that was most disturbing happened as we tried to negotiate to get the students released and confront them [the police] about what happened; they basically acknowledged two things: first thing was the arrests were targeted. So the fact that Jane Quin and I were arrested was not by accident. Secondly, they were just following orders but they claimed the orders were coming from our own university executive. So even though the police knew us, knew our names and knew the interdict didn’t apply to us, they still arrested us, and we know it’s because they were just following orders which came from the university executive. So that’s what we heard from that discussion taking place behind the police vans away from the crowd. That was very disturbing for us to hear that the university was still continuing to interfere in the role of other state players.
We are still seeking legal consultations but the idea is to go ahead with legal action because we were wrongfully arrested. The university spokesperson also said, regarding the staff members who were arrested, that they shouldn’t have been and that it was a case of mistaken identity. Everybody knows that isn’t true because the police know our names. It was carefully orchestrated.We did complete an affidavit recounting what had happened that day but we weren’t able to open a case immediately because police were inundated with other issues. The idea is to go ahead with legal action but I cannot confirm anything at the moment.
Students are traumatised and terrified. The fear that they have is not from fellow students as people try to portray in the public realm. They are in fear of targeted arrests. Some people in the community have had to take students into their homes because students are fearful of staying in residents because they are getting word they are being hunted down. There is a culture of fear and intimidation on the ground, even of sexual assault. I can say I have personally witnessed security members, to put it mildly, “flirting” with female students. I get contacted by students who are scared and they say, “I can’t sleep at night. I cannot focus, I cannot concentrate. I’m scared to go back to my room, I cannot go back to my residence.” These are the personal stories I get to hear. But there’s also the academic aspect because of the emotional trauma. Students can’t write exams and expect to pass. They’re being examined on work they’ve not been able to prepare for. The library has been closed. They don’t have access to those resources, they don’t have access to the internet. They are dependent on the internet on campus which is the site of some much violence for them.
I can’t speak for other universities but we are not an island. We are part of a community and therefore the community needs to hold the university accountable for how it is dealing with the issues that is going on. The university has taken an anti-dialogical approach. They have not entertained any opportunity to meet students or academics in Pietermaritzburg who have been calling for a meeting with the VC and management for more than two months. It is simply refused or ignored. It is just ridiculous that in 2016, in post apartheid, democratic South Africa of all places on a university campus it is illegal for students to gather whether it is for pray, whether it is for a meeting, to socialise. It is illegal except that they go to class. These are the stories that people don’t know about how it affects us on the ground.