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Sat Oct 22 03:50:51 SAST 2016

The Big Read: Firebrands coil into victimhood

Jonathan Jansen | 06 October, 2016 08:09
Former University of the Free State rector Prof. Jonathan Jansen during an interview on October 2, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Image by: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lisa Hnatowicz

It is now clear that the immediate future of our universities might hinge on how we think about security.

As one committed to the idea of the university as a free and open place for ideas, especially uncomfortable and marginal ones, I think the notion of security on campus sounds inimical to the very concept of what an institution of higher learning should be about.

And that is why those genuinely concerned about our public institutions are in two minds about the place of security on a university campus.

In normal circumstances, universities across the country and indeed around the world, have very limited, often invisible, security in place.

Campus security is unarmed and for the most part "security" is an office on campus where petty or even more serious crimes can be reported.

Since we still have campuses with open access, such as at the University of Cape Town, it is possible for anyone to walk onto or off a campus without being questioned or stopped.

Needless to say, the open campuses are also high-risk campuses, given rampant crime in communities around universities and throughout the country. But, in normal times, one is as likely to see a security officer accompany a woman student from the library to her residence late at night as one is to file a report on a stolen cellphone from a bag in the science laboratory.

All that changed when students turned violent on some of our university campuses. Even then, academics at the open universities were often split when their senior leaders brought added security to campuses.

And when police came to the campuses there were for many academics flashbacks to the apartheid era when police were summoned to campuses.

This ambivalence about added security or outright rejection of "the securitisation of campuses" is still heard today, even as very visible evidence of violence mounts at about a dozen universities.

So what does the senior management of a university do?

We need an honest assessment of why the added security was necessary in the first place. It was to avert physical harm to staff and students as well as the burning down of campus buildings.

Sometimes vice-chancellors exposed themselves to harm and humiliation when they operated on the assumption of peaceful protest; there are countless examples that could be raised here.

The reality is that the university leadership has a solemn responsibility to parents and the safety of their children; it is, I can assure you, a heavy burden to bear.

University managers also have a huge responsibility to society to protect public facilities essential to teaching and learning, examinations and graduations, studies and research.

For these enormous tasks, the normal campus security could not under any circumstances guarantee the safety of campus citizens and essential facilities.

As libraries burned, residences were set on fire, an auditorium was razed, computer laboratories were wrecked, whole administration buildings were reduced to ashes, and a petrol bomb was lobbed into a vice-chancellor's office, university leaders had two choices: they could allow the sacking of our campuses - with damage already approaching R1-billion - or they could find ways to avert the collapse of much-needed and very expensive campus facilities.

Make no mistake, these protests have become deadly; the tragic loss of a worker's life at Wits has been related to the protests.

The miracle of 2015/16 is that more people have not died as violence has surged on and around campuses. Our thinking about campus security in these deadly times has to change, otherwise our facilities and our people are at huge risk.

One security concern in particular must be addressed - effective security on and around campuses that are disciplined and capable of managing protesting crowds, even in the face of extreme provocation. At the same time, the rights of the majority of students must be protected.

As a poll at Wits showed, 77% of students want classes to continue. Despite that evidence, a small minority continues to disrupt classes, assault nonprotesting students and staff, and then coil into victimhood when faced by security. That is disingenuous.

Sadly, the likes of UCT are more vulnerable than most because it is within their DNA as open, liberal institutions to balk at the notion of added security and policing on and around campuses.

The activists, not all of whom are students, know this and are exploiting that vulnerability for all its worth. It is important that the UCT leadership is supported in securing one of our leading universities for generations of students to come.


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