On Wednesday night, Wits students took the university to court in an effort to stop the referendum that vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib planned to host on Thursday. The students were not granted the interdict but the judge ruled that it would go ahead as an opinion poll instead of a referendum, in order for the “silent majority” to be heard.
The poll opened at 7am on Thursday and was sent to students via SMS and staff via email.
In a statement emailed to students, Habib explained that the reason for the poll was to determine whether he has students’ and staff’s support to continue the university’s academic programme. He said that he did not ask for the poll as an excuse to bring private security on to campus or justify police presence at Wits.
“I personally detest the fact that we have to teach and learn with security or the police at our doors,” said Habib.
We asked Wits students about their thoughts on the poll and whether reopening campus with the presence of private security is a good idea.
Raees Noorbhai, 20
[dropcap]”[/dropcap]I think in the current climate, it’s merely an attempt to delegitimise protesting students and silence us. It’s an attempt to divide the student body and break student unity. It’s being suggested in the context of fear-mongering by the university, with management threatening to shut down residences and the academic program for the rest of the year if campus is not reopened soon. That fear-mongering is reckless, and strengthens the hand of management in their referendum. It’s also a failure on the part of Habib to address the reasons motivating the shutdown. Instead of engaging, he’s employing scare-tactics to silence the movement. If management wins the referendum, we can only expect more brutality towards students. If the demands set out by the student movement haven’t been met, campus shouldn’t open.
[Private security] do more to endanger students than to protect us. Earlier in the year, private security did nothing to stop the spate of muggings occurring on campus, despite the fact that the university was spending around R2 million a month on it. This is before we account for the alleged sexual assault perpetrated by these private security men. Increased private security means increased militarisation and a higher chance of peacefully-protesting students being brutalised. Also, the militarisation of campus has a chilling effect on free expression and is detrimental to the critical environment that must be fostered by a university.“
Tessa Hellberg, 20
[dropcap]”[/dropcap]I think the referendum is a good idea. I think it’s important to hear everyone’s views on any situation, so even if the consensus is that we should go back, we know for sure that everyone is on board. I think classes should resume on Monday for two reasons. First of all, we have to finish the academic year. As much as fighting for free education is important, people have had to pay for this year’s tuition. Not completing the academic year means that those already vulnerable, who have taken loans to try support their studies, are in debt of around R30, 000. While free education is something we all strive towards, we cannot just forget that people have spent a huge amount of money for this academic year. Second, unfortunately, there is a very unfair portrayal of the student movement in the media. Obviously, no one throws a stone unprovoked, but that is not what people watching the news see. By resuming classes but holding silent protests or having lunchtime marches, I think the public would be a lot more supportive of the movement and get more involved, perhaps even help find solutions.“
So yes, I’m keen to go back to Wits to complete studies, but no, I don’t want this to end the fees debate. How do I vote? #WitsPoll
— Cathryn Christy (@CatChristy) September 29, 2016
Shana Clark*, 20
[dropcap]”[/dropcap]I’m not a fan of the referendum. Adam Habib needs to engage with his students on a real level, not via media and technology. And classes should not resume unless the university have addressed the issues at hand.
Private security makes most of us females feel uncomfortable on campus due to their sexualised comments etc. More broadly, private security presence intimidates everyone and isn’t conducive to a learning environment. Plus the email said wits will call on the government to fulfil their responsibility to protect. This probably means we can expect army presence – people who are trained to kill.“
— Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig) September 29, 2016
Ayrton Altorio, 21
[dropcap]”[/dropcap]The referendum is not necessarily a bad idea, but I don’t think it will help at all. A referendum won’t stop #FeesMustFall. On top of that, I think everyone knows what the outcome of the referendum will be, and that’s why Habib is pushing for it. Protesters won’t stop protesting because the majority of students might want to go back to varsity, it’s not that simple. I think Wits should reopen when it is safe for both sides to be at Wits with regards to police, private security and student-on-student violence. There’s probably gonna be even more private security when we reopen. The pros are that there will be tightened security for all, and the cons are that it might just incite more violence.“
Habib stated that he is prepared to ask the private security and the police to leave Wits campuses immediately if student leadership agrees to three conditions:
- That there are no more disruptions to academic activities;
- that there will be no intimidation or violence in any form; and
- that anyone who is caught engaging in criminal activities or breaking the university’s rules will be held accountable immediately, in line with the university’s rules.
Faheem Meer, 25
[dropcap]”[/dropcap]I think a referendum is a good idea. While there is currently a lot of talk of right and wrong, justice and injustice, nobody seems certain of the view of the majority of students (or staff, for that matter). Perhaps the protesters are acting on behalf of a majority, but perhaps not, and if not, it raises a lot of questions regarding actions for a perceived (but possibly misguided) “greater good” and the determination of who decides this. The outcome should also give the SRC an indication of their mandate from the student body, one way or another. Without an idea of the majority sentiment, it’s difficult to say when Wits will or should reopen. However, should the majority decide to resume the academic programme, it will certainly sway public sympathy toward university management and the use of private security and police. While this might be necessary to enforce a majority decision (and the rule of law), it has the potential to become heavy-handed and can set a dangerous precedent, which could have a negative impact on future movements in the same vein as the 2015 FeesMustFall movement.”
*Name has been changed