The Daily Vox spoke to Jane Duncan, Professor in Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and author of The Rise of the Securocrats: the Case of South Africa, about the increased securitisation of university spaces that has come to mark this year’s protests for free education.
The presence of the Tactical Response Team (TRT) on our campuses is an indication that, what should be considered a public order policing activity, has been escalated into being a tactical activity. We need to understand the provenance of these tactical units. The TRT is one of three paramilitary units that have been set up within the police to deal with with issues like serious crime, cash in transit heists, terrorism, hijackings – they are trained to use maximum force, not minimum force.
So it is a potentially lethal situation that is unfolding on our campuses if the tactical units are now being deployed there. But added to that is the fact that this particular tactical unit is one of two tactical units that has been singled out by the Farlam commission for being responsible for the Marikana massacre. It was the TRT and the National Intervention Unit that were particularly responsible for how things unfolded at what’s known as Scene 2 at Marikana. The TRT has also become notorious around the country for acting as the private security guards of certain politicians and they have conducted reigns of terror in different parts of the country.
Now this is obviously going to poison the environment at universities. And I think the way it’s poisoning the environment is that many student protesters are sensing an inherent injustice in how their just cause is being dealt with. And I think, given the fractured nature of the student movement, different sections of the student movement are responding differently.
The more “moderate” sections of the movement can easily be frightened off by all of this. Whereas a section of the movement that remains, because it’s been socialised into very high levels of violence by the presence of these [police] units on campus, can see the use of violence as the only form of self defence. And what this has led to, and this has been shown time and again in social movement studies in other parts of the world, is that when you socialise social movements into violence – when you demonstrate that that is the only way of responding to just struggles – it’s almost inevitable that a section of that social movement becomes hardened in their attitudes and start to organise themselves, possibly even go underground, and to use violence in a more organised fashion.
Now what I think what’s generally been shown internationally, also in studies of social movements’ take up of violence, is that violence is hardly ever used in an organised fashion in an early phase of the struggle – generally it’s unorganised and it’s a companion reaction to the excessive use of force by the police; or alternatively the more generalised closure of democratic space.
Now, we don’t know if the burning down of libraries, the auditorium at UJ and what have you has been done by students, but obviously it needs to be proved. Though I would be surprised if it isn’t the case. But I think that if we study these things and we understand how cycles of protest unfold, it is an indication of a profound lack of vision on the part of both national government and university authorities not to have foreseen where we are at this stage on our campuses could become a reality. I think if we learn the necessary lessons of history, I think they should have foreseen that things would come to this.
I think the overregulation of protest, by the state, university authorities and the police, escalated and radicalised the protests, I think it’s contributed to the dividing of the movement. The movement was strongest when it was operating on a united basis – a kind of cross-political basis – and when it was operating on a non-violent basis. But I think the situation has escalated to the point where, unfortunately, sections of the student movement [who] are engaging in increasingly disruptive and even violent forms of protest are literally shifting the struggle onto a terrain that is dominated overwhelmingly by the state and its security apparatus.
This task team that’s been set up to deal with the crisis speaks volumes about how the government is responding to this particular issue. The fact that the security cluster dominates that particular task team is an indication of the fact that government is determined to adopt a more securitised approach to this particular problem, rather than addressing the underlying root causes. So I definitely think that a significant portion of the blame for the increasing violence of the protests needs to be placed at the door of both university authorities and government. I am absolutely certain of that.