A response to Wits VC’s open letter on university protests

NATASHA VALLY and SARAH GODSELL have some criticisms for Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib, who justified bringing private security onto the campus in an open letter published last week. 

The open letter published on the 18th of January by Professor Adam Habib, with the support of the University’s Senior Executive Team (SET), exposes how power and position are abused in the ways in which the FeesMustFall movement is portrayed. The letter is in part a list of rhetorical questions, in part a Habibiography, part emotive stereotyping, part a poor response to concerned academics, and, most disconcertingly, a condemnation of current organising and protest. While we respond to some specific content of Habib’s letter in this article, we are aware that many of his arguments are also used by managements to justify the suppression of protest and dissent at academic institutions around the country and globally.

Habib’s letter was prompted by concerns expressed by academics from the institution he manages, and those who are in solidarity with them. These academics raise serious fears about the implications of the use of private security on campus and the threats made against faculty who are opposed to this. The introduction of private security onto Wits’ campus, from the beginning of the registration period in 2016 has been terrifying: uniformed men with bulletproof vests and riot gear (shields, clubs and fencing) patrol the corridors, and have established checkpoints for surveillance and exclusion.

Academics have been “escorted” to their offices. The singling-out of black academics to shadow and interrogate has been noticeable and scarily reminiscent of the policing of black bodies that our country’s history is steeped in. Students have also faced restrictions of access to their university and have been evicted from and shut out of Solomon (previously Senate) House, a key space for organising and study on campus.

In his letter, Habib denies that students experienced violence and sexual assault by private security. He claims that the guards are being used in order to avoid calling police onto campus, which would require a court order. Habib goes further to explain that private security at the university will lead to less violence as management can impose limitations on their actions whereas police, “once invited onto campus” act independently and may use rubber bullets. He conveniently forgets  that police were called onto campus last year and earlier this year anyway and that public order police are even now on standby. What escapes Habib is that the most obvious thing to do is not to invite police onto campus in the first place and to seek more meaningful approaches and forms of engagement around the underlying issues that have given rise to this situation in the first place. The choice between police or private security is only the illusion of choice: the only options presented are violence. To compound what we consider a fallacious choice, it is not surprising that the university would choose to privatise security, it has done so for almost all other services. In fact, criticisms of privatisation at the academy are what sparked many of the current national protests.

The VC’s letter stresses that securitisation of campus is a necessary, legitimate, and proportional response to protests, and intimates that this was the only possible reaction that management could have to the FeesMustFall movement in the beginning of 2016. Deploying narratives of “reason” and “rationality”, the VC sets up a binary that implies students and workers’ demands and actions are irrational and thus their protests unjustified. The VC’s position implies that “reasonable” management have had no choice but to revert to violent containment.

Positioning student and worker protestors as irrational simultaneously dilutes and deflects from the concerns, demands, and rationale of calls for free education and an end to outsourcing. It would be more fruitful to examine how the protests were fuelled when agreements made publicly by Wits University last year, worked out through negotiations with democratically elected student and worker representatives, were reneged on or manipulated. To the extent that he concedes the right to protest, Habib argues that it must be based on what he has called (in a subsequent TV interview) “thoughtful activism” – the terms of which he defines self-referentially. In effect, what he asks for is the kind of “activism” sanctioned by and based on his view of it and, moreover, approved by his authority alone.

The patronising tone of the letter is embellished by Habib establishing himself as a seasoned activist who understands the situation in a way that the protestors do not. Habib attempts, by this, to mask the reality of his role as manager. The present forms of management as we know are in some ways at the root of the problem in many academic institutions across the country where students and workers are mobilising against managerialism and the corporatisation of our universities. Spreadsheets aside (even though comprehensive reports have detailed how free education is financially possible), it is a poverty of ethics that perpetuates the exclusion of poor students and the undignified wages of outsourced university workers. What Habib has lost sight of, in his zeal to show his managerial capabilities, is the larger national issue around the right of students to a free quality higher education. That issue, together with the issue of outsourcing, are the key questions, and are not resolved by securitisation, threats of violence, and managerial talk.

RELATED: What Adam Habib forgets when he talks about his time as a student activist 

In the national movements against fees, and in support of free education, and calls for an end to outsourcing, tens of thousands have organised and engaged in public open debate which is in itself immensely educational in ways that go beyond an academic understanding of the term. Yet, in Habib’s letter these students and workers are erased and vilified. They are constantly referred to as an outlying or “bad apple” minority as according to the VC only “a small group of students” is involved in these actions. Having attempted to erase the impact of the national participation in the struggle for free education, supported internationally by solidarity actions, Habib then goes on to attack the FeesMustFall protestors, referring to a nebulous and supposedly negligible “group of activists”. The readers are assured that there was no violence perpetrated against them and instead claims that these students were threatening and violent.

There is clearly a strategic orientation to what he points to as violence while conveniently ignoring the institutional violence at his disposal. His exaggerations are intended for a public to which he has much greater access, and the ability to reach in his attempts to persuade about the “reasonableness” of his actions. In this, he conveniently erases from view that FeesMustFall protestors at Wits University were violently evicted from Solomon House by private security called for by Habib and the SET. Protestors were beaten with batons, removed in chokeholds, and women were groped and sexually assaulted. Solomon House is a space that had been occupied, turned into a study space, claimed as an area for voicing agreements and agitations, and made safe by the FeesMustFall movement last year. The eviction was physically and emotionally violent.

Wits states that they have reviewed the CCTV footage, and only students were encouraging violence. In effect, the burden is now on students to prove the abuse by reporting it to the university structures or to the police, otherwise their claims apparently hold no validity. They are told to report their violation to the same structures that have violated them. This call for reporting is similar to the way that rape victims are called on to report their rape (potentially facing secondary violence from the police) or else their accusations are not taken seriously and are not deemed “reasonable”. This serves to psychologically undermine the protestors: to render their violations invisible.

Adam Habib depicted on a mural at Wits as  turning students away
Adam Habib depicted on a mural at Wits as turning students away (Aaisha Dadi Patel)

Throughout the letter, Habib uses the emotive trope of an “old man from Limpopo” who is unable to register his grandson for a degree because of student-led shutdowns. Drawing on this rhetoric shows either Habib’s deep misunderstanding of the protests, or his wilful masking of the true nature of the objectives of FeesMustFall. It is precisely these potentially vulnerable students, and their families, that FeesMustFall is composed of. His attempts at appropriating the struggle for free education in this way are simply disingenuous. A “grandfather from Limpopo” should NOT have to save and use all of his money, as well as the money from his family, for his one grandson to register. The meaning of the FeesMustFall campaign is precisely to advance the rights of this student to be able to register for free, without plunging their family into debt, and to ensure that degrees are completed without risk of dropout as a result of exorbitant fees. And that struggle is what Habib seeks to own even while he attempts to de-legitimise it.

The facade that the University is open for the “grandson from Limpopo” and that it is actually FeesMustFall protestors preventing this access erases the structural violence of the racial and geographic inequality in South Africa. FeesMustFall is not removed from the reality of what it is like for a family to save up, for realising its deepest aspirations, and for a “better life” to ride on one student. Pontsho Pilane recently wrote on how problematic it is that people who “make it” in the face of challenges such as extreme poverty are celebrated, rather than the poverty itself being challenged. The odds of “making it” despite the structural inequality are not good, and participants in FeesMustFall have seen this for decades. Education should not be a debt sentence or a game where the house always wins.

Mobilising this poverty narrative against the student protestors is hypocritical at best, and sinister at worst. It plays into a politics of “respectability” where the “made it-despite-everything” narrative is celebrated, rather than acknowledging that a majority of students will not have the funds complete their studies. This is manipulative heart-string-pulling for those who support struggles against poverty and inequality, and who are asked to sympathise with the “grandfather from Limpopo”, but who simply do not know the other side of the story; its politics and vision to wipe out foundational disparity in the education system.

This protest is against structural poverty, structural inequality, against poor students needing to struggle to register, their parents needing to travel long distances from rural areas to ensure their children manage to register, against the struggle to get into university – and stay there.

We must carefully examine the terms of the debate set out in this “open” communication from Habib. Diverting the debate into indefensible justifications of violence is a strategy to detract from the clear, immediate, and urgent demands, goals, and the vision of FeesMustFall for a country where universities are not cleaned by exploited workers, and where access to education is not determined by social class or access to resources or at the whim of its managers.

Natasha Vally (@natashavally) is completing her doctoral degree and Sarah Godsell (@saritafrutilla) has recently graduated with a doctorate, both from Wits University.