The militarisation of public universities across South African campuses has bred a culture of violence, intolerance, repression of protest and use of force against poor students.
The brutal killing of 35-year-old Mthokozisi Ntumba in March this year must be understood in the context of government’s systematic defunding of public universities and the fascist culture cemented by former Wits University Vice-Chancellor and former chair of Universities South Africa, Adam Habib.
Overs the past few years, students have protested against fee exclusion, insourcing of cleaning and security workers, decolonisation of universities and gender equality.
For those of us who were student activists a decade ago, the university was a space for contestation of ideas. University management understood that even in our disagreements, the university was a sacred space to mould future intellectuals. Even at the height of apartheid’s repression and interference of universities, the sight of police on campus was frowned upon by both students and academics.
Since the 2015/16 fees must fall protests, one thing that been permanent at many of the student protests has been the violent repression of students’ voices through the deployment of private security and the South African Police Service (SAPS), effectively criminalising protests at universities.
While many Professors have theorised how the neoliberal macroeconomic policy undertaken by the democratic government thereby systematically defunding universities, many have remained silent while enabling a culture of repression on university campuses.
Many have remained silent while student activists were intimidated with dubious charges by university management, arrested and those academics who dared questioned decisions of senior management were labelled “incompetent”, vilified as violent, and dismissed as “cheeky”, “insolent” or “Pol Pot Brigade” in the infamous gossip column by Adam Habib titled ‘Rebels and Rage’.
During the recent protests against student’s financial exclusion exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19 lockdown and the inherent exclusion of online learning, students called for transparency from university management and placed emphasis on negotiations in order to create equitable access to higher education.
However, university management responded with heavily armed private security at the slightest sign of students’ discontent. While presiding over Wits university over an eight-year tenure, Habib created a blueprint for many Vice-Chancellors to follow – the systematic exclusion of the poor from public universities while intrenching a culture of intolerance and violence.
The consequence has been the abandonment of democratic liberties through violence and repression in almost all public universities in South Africa.
While the violent repression in universities must be observed in the context of austerity budgets that have systematically defunded higher education over the years, no one has dared to asked what the cost is of contracting private security in public universities.
The cost of the militarisation of university campuses through private security and police is beyond monetary, it breeds a fascist culture of intolerance, repression and violence in institutions that are meant to mirror society for the better.
If the brutal killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba should mean anything, at the very least, it should serve as reminder of the urgent need to actively reclaim our right to access education to build a more just and equitable society.
Social Justice activist and researcher in the EFF Parliamentary caucus, Tokelo writes in his personal capacity as Former Deputy President of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at Wits University. BA in Politics and International Relations from Wits University (2011). BA with honors in Journalism and Media from Wits University (2012). Master of Arts in Political Sciences at Wits University. PhD Candidate at Wits University. Twitter: @tokelonhlapo