Who’s really in charge of our universities during #FeesMustFall?

Since the latest wave of Fees Must Fall protests broke out in September, university campuses nationwide have been teeming with private security and officers from the South African Police Service (SAPS). With the chaos of the protests and lack of communication, it’s been unclear who is in fact in command of universities – their management, or the police?

On Monday, the University of Cape Town (UCT) released a statement saying that protests on its campus had reached a level that they could no longer contain using private security alone. The university then declared a level-three security situation on its campus, and said that other campuses had been declared the same.

“In addition, we face a situation where we have been informed that several universities, including UCT, have been declared a level-three security situation by the national commissioner of SAPS, which, in effect, means that the Public Order Police are in command of the situation,” said the university.

UCT later corrected the statement, saying that no such declaration had been made and universities are not under the command of the SAPS, but vice chancellors would work with the SAPS to manage situations where police may be needed.

Speaking at a media briefing in Pretoria on Monday, Lieutenant General Kgomotso Phahlane of the SAPS confirmed that no university was under the operational command of the police.

“The management and security within the institutions of higher learning remain the responsibility of the university concerned. However, the SAPS will continue to execute the functions of policing as provided for by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”

But this doesn’t change the fact that the statement was made in the first place, so we’re curious about what exactly a level-three situation entails. The Daily Vox spoke to Right2Know’s Murray Hunter.

“What we think level three refers to is the a set of guidelines for Public Order Policing. These are basically the rules that stipulate how police must conduct themselves in what they call crowd management situations. And that has a level of categories for situations. Level one, two and three. Level one is the lowest risk and Level three is the highest risk.”

Via Right2Know
Via Right2Know

“What it says is that public order police are supposed to do a threat assessment and must categorise the situation in terms of level one, level two, level three. And level three is supposedly the highest risk if there’s confirmed information regarding the likely threat to life and property.

At level one and level two it’s either visible policing or metro police; the public order police are in reserve and then if something is a level three they take over operational command,” said Hunter.

Effectively, a level-three situation means the police are in total command of security.

For Angelo Fick, current affairs and news analyst, UCT’s statement and retraction brings the autonomy of South African universities into question and should be a national concern.

“Some may dismiss this [the UCT statement] as a negligible human error, something that happens in situations of uncertainty and fear. But a statement of more than 330 words declaring that ‘the Public Order Police are in command of the situation’ constitutes more than a minor slip,” wrote Fick for eNCA.

This was not the first time that the autonomy of a university was brought into question. On 10 October, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) released a statement following the pandemonium in Braamfontein, that sounded like a level-three situation had been declared.

The announcement angered students, who have criticised the increased police presence on the campus.

Mary Moagi, a Wits student, told The Daily Vox that she does not feel safe attending class with police around. “I have been here since Monday [10 October] and it’s not safe to be on campus. I am even more terrified because I am black, the police won’t even consider if I am part of the protest or not,” she said.

Hunter said that, although we don’t know for sure whether a level-three situation had ever been called by Wits or any other university, it’s a possibility.

“If a level-three situation is any situation where the police have confirmed or believe they have confirmed information regarding a threat to life and property, I think it would be reasonable to think that police had been at that level on campus and around campus before,” he said.

However, police are reluctant to disclose this kind of information to the public. National spokesperson, Brigadier Sally de Beer told The Daily Vox, “Lt Gen Phahlane advised that he had never issued such an instruction and was totally unaware of it. He emphatically rejected claims that any university is under ‘the operational command of the police’.”

So who gave UCT this information, then?

“I think there is a real need for more transparency about the nature of police operations, who is in command, what kind of information they have, what kinds of authority they think they have, what sort of powers they have been authorised to use. We need a lot more transparency around this and UCT’s statement on Monday and its retraction didn’t help,” said Hunter.

Brigadier De Beer would not comment on what powers the police would have in a level-three situation, echoing Lieutenant General Phahlane’s comment that it was unnecessary to discuss it further.

The list of injuries from the police’s rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades seems to be increasing daily. And it’s clear that, for purposes of accountability, we need to know who is in control of the country’s universities.

“The autonomy of the university remains something to treasure as an idea, and something to aspire towards as an ideal. We cannot surrender control of higher education to the police, not even by mistake, not even for a few hours,” wrote Fick.

Hunter agreed. “Irrespective of whether or not something is level one, two or three, police shouldn’t take control of the universities. It’s important to clarify that,” he said.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia

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