Along with our greetings for the New Year, the newly elected executive committee of ASAWU would like to share some important information in the context of recent management communications and actions regarding security on campus, the right to protest, and the implications of these for academic staff.
Security on Campus
Registration for the 2016 academic year commenced on Monday, 11th January 2016 and so, too, did the resurgence of the #FeesMustFall protests resulting in registration being suspended by the afternoon. The registration process is of vital importance to the university and to the thousands of new and returning students, many of whom are unable to take up their accommodation until the registration process is completed. Also important is the desperate need to address through access to higher education the social inequality crippling South African society.
The protests on Monday were, according to management, violent and abusive towards registering students, their parents and staff members, leading to registration being suspended in the afternoon and only resuming on the Wednesday (13 Jan). ASAWU calls on all parties to refrain from violence in order to allow registration to continue. The registration process has continued since then, accompanied by stringent security measures and daily, sometimes bi-daily notices from the Senior Executive Team (SET), culminating with the notice, “Additional Security Deployed, Court Interdict obtained, Update from the Senior Executive Team” sent out on Friday, 15th January.
Those of us who have been on campus this week have been confronted by the sight of a heavy private security presence, in full riot gear wielding shields or in black garb devoid of company insignia, badges or names. Although as yet unconfirmed, there are at least three different private security firms operating on the Wits Campuses, namely Fidelity Guards, Diligence and Tactical Support Unit whose promotional website atwww.tsuafrica.com makes for some interesting if rather alarming reading. Numbers of security personnel are high in contrast to the 15 to 20 students who protested near Hall 29 on West Campus. Access to Solomon Mahlangu/Senate House is currently restricted to card carrying staff members since 20 or so students were forcefully evicted from the Concourse on Tuesday (12 Jan) morning.
Wits is not alone in calling in such large numbers of security at what must be a prohibitive financial cost. UNISA, UP, UJ and Stellenbosch University have all brought in private security forces on to their campuses in equally large numbers. Stellenbosch University has disclosed that “beefing up their security was not just a management decision, but was also aligned with a directive from government” (Reported at http://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/strong-security-firm-presence-at-universities-1.1969980 on 12 January, 2016). The ASAWU Exec is concerned about apparent government interference with universities in this way and will continue to work towards ensuring that university autonomy and academic freedom are preserved.
“Breaching Security Protocol”
Several of our members have reacted with apprehension to the announcement sent to all staff by SET on Friday, 15th January. Members have expressed concern about the perceived threat of disciplinary action against staff contained in this paragraph:
“Some staff members have also tried to breach security protocols. We want to remind staff that the decision to bring additional security onto campus is an executive decision and that any member of staff who violates the university’s security protocols will be jeopardizing the safety and security of our campus and thereby violating their own conditions of service.”
ASAWU has communicated with management in order to seek clarity on these “security protocols”, in particular the statement above. We received the following in response from Deputy Vice Chancellor Tawana Kupe (email 17 January, 2016):
“What the statement you want clarity [on] means is not that staff will be held to account for participating in protests or for protest. Protest is a right which we respect. Our security officers and the security we have brought are not here to interfere with the right to protest.
The statement is referring to situations where a staff member(s) aids and abets violent disruption of registration processes and other administrative processes of the university.”
Professor Kupe further states, “The appropriate thing to do for academic staff members is to engage with management if they have questions or queries”. We urge you to take Professor Kupe up on this and approach management with any queries or concerns you may have. Furthermore, should any staff member feel that they have been the subject of any unjust or violent action from students or management, we encourage them to seek redress through the appropriate institutional structures, and/or to turn to ASAWU for assistance should there be a lack of trust in the former.
Right to Protest
ASAWU reminds members that the protection of the Labour Relations Act, the Constitution and University Disciplinary Policies and Procedures apply in respect of any disciplinary action instituted against staff members. SET have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to uphold the right to protest, which of course is a Constitutionally guaranteed right contained in section 17 of the Constitution of South Africa. This right to protest is not, however, unfettered.
The Regulation of Gatherings Act 2015/1993 (RGA) (accessed at www.gov.za/documents/regulation-gatherings-act ) sets out the parameters within which lawful protest may take place. In terms of the RGA a group of 15 or fewer people is deemed to be a demonstration not requiring prior notice and permission, while a group of 16 or more is termed a ‘gathering’ that requires prior notice and permission as per the RGA. Note that section 9(2) of the RGA states that only a police officer who is a warrant officer or higher rank may order protesters to disperse during a legally recognized protest. Private security maintain no right to request protesters to disperse.
Section 12(2) of the RGA does however provide that if a gathering occurs spontaneously, its very spontaneity is a defense against liability for failing to give prior notice and seeking prior permission. A useful guide on the laws surrounding protesting may be accessed at http://fxi.org.za/home/publications/handbook/ .
A Diversity of Views
ASAWU affirms its respect for a wide diversity of views, ideas and opinions both within its own membership and in the Higher Education community more broadly. We urge all members to show mutual respect for one another when engaging in debates about the many important issues facing our sector today. ASAWU remains steadfast in its stand against violence by any party on our campuses and urges all to seek resolution through meaningful dialogue to the current crises. ASAWU remains committed to representing academic staff in broad coalitions aimed at making higher education more accessible for all. We reaffirm our commitment to education and re-emphasize our view that students are at the heart of the work that academics do. We urge a renewed commitment to resisting any attack on the autonomy of our university and the academic freedom which is the lifeblood of academia.
Over the year ahead, the ASAWU Exec will be leading strategic campaigns to better understand our members’ needs and assist in rising to meet challenges facing academic staff. We will communicate more about these in due course. In the meantime, we invite all members to share their views, concerns, comments or suggestions with us at this link. Please use this to make yourselves heard and to enable the ASAWU Executive Team to more properly and faithfully represent you.
The days and months ahead may not be easy. Patience, understanding and tolerance is going to be required as will our unstinting commitment to non-violence, academic freedom and the autonomy of our institution as we work together as academics, students and broader society to realize our shared vision of access to free education.