Statement from UCT Centre for African Studies tutors on the current crisis at UCT

7 Oct 2016 - 16:15

Based on the declarations tabled by the Humanities Extended Deans’ Advisory Committee, the Black Academic Caucus, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and the open letter written to the Political Studies Department by its concerned tutors, we, as tutors within the Centre for African Studies, have decided to clarify our position on the current crisis.

The militarisation of campus has created an unsafe space of physical and mental violence that is at odds with learning. As we know, violence breeds further violence, and this securitization is turning campus into a space we do not want to be in, nor feel comfortable urging our students to participate in. Our greatest concern is the safety of our students, and we therefore feel we cannot responsibly ask them to come to tutorials under circumstances like these, where private security are controlling, surveilling and violating the learning space.

We do not support an institution which speaks the language of violence instead of using its abilities of listening and negotiating in the face of discontent, disruption and disagreement. We believe this overpowering use of force is an intolerable response to calls for change by students and protesters. It also deepens the divides between the multitude of stakeholders in this situation.

Furthermore, we cannot help but wonder where this securitization was when queer, black and otherwise marginalised women were sexually violated on campus properties and in the immediate vicinity. The university’s priorities appear to us not only highly questionable, but genuinely troubling. We must ask this university to answer who they see as worthy of safety and security. We must ask who matters to this university.

The fact remains that even when students have peacefully attempted to attend classes, racial profiling has been exercised, furthering violence against black students and staff within the university space. In the last couple of days, we have seen clearly that the private security and SAPS presence on campus leads to not only physical, but mental and emotional, harm to us and our fellow students. This violent space is not an environment we feel comfortable teaching in.

The university’s discourse that the use of police force is necessary to ensure safety of both persons and property is a reproduction of the myth that narrowly constitutes protesters as threatening and violent, thereby perpetuating the (explicitly racist) myth of the dangerous black person. This discourse and the institution’s subsequent response cannot, therefore, be viewed as the only possible one. Furthermore, when the institution exerts physical and psychological harm on students and claims it is a ‘response’ to violence, rather than violence itself, it leads us to question what counts as violence and what does not? To whom is ‘safety’ ensured? The discourse that purportedly promotes safety is the same that meets with brutal violence on black, female and queer bodies.

We commend the successful negotiations which took place between concerned students and staff in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FSH). We especially endorse Dean Bongani Mayosi’s decision not to involve private security, and highlight the positive results this decision has wrought in the long term. We believe that the university as a whole can learn from these processes, and implement their broad structure at an institutional level.

We would also like to note the promising nature of negotiations between students and senior management over the weekend between Friday 30 September and Monday 3 October. The transparency, explicit goals and careful mediation which presided over these negotiation processes filled us with hope. However, we believe starting these negotiations two weeks into a shutdown was somewhat foolish. It is obvious to us that more time should have been devoted to the process of negotiating a return to operations. We also wish to comment on management’s arrogance in insisting on a return to operations on the 3 October, despite a clear collapse in the negotiation process — this sort of arrogance cannot be abided, and should rightly be condemned.

Furthermore, the one-sided and propagandistic “UCT News” narrative, which has been strategically disseminated over the past week, is not only incorrect but anti-intellectual. The official narrative circulated through university channels, which depicts protesters as violent and irrational, has been challenged repeatedly by an array of students in and outside of the movement, as well as by independent observers. It is clear that whatever the details of confrontations, the presence of private security has escalated violence and led to significant trauma.

Until the afternoon of 5 October, management followed a denialist strategy, suggesting operations were in swing with several minor inconveniences. This strategy, we believe, was irresponsible and absurd. Rather than work towards a credible solution, management, by attempting to continue operating through the enforcement of private security, absolved itself of its responsibilities to both staff and students. Tutors cannot be expected to operate at the front lines of a militarized campus dealing personally with traumatized students and navigating the general violence of a militarized campus as well as specific incidences of racial profiling. Instead of taking genuine responsibility for navigating the complex situation in which we find ourselves, management has rather put its energies towards constructing a fear mongering “either/or” narrative.

The disruption of UCT’s Jammie Shuttle services means that many were unable to access the university. The shutdown of facilities, including labs and libraries, presents further barriers to those for whom such facilities are integral to research and learning. To adopt a stance in which the university was seen as “fully operational” amid protests and disruptions, with several vital services shutdown, is an affront to inclusive, accessible learning. The situation (i.e. the resumption of all “academic programs”) will affect many who rely upon access to libraries, labs and Jammie Shuttle services to undertake their respective studies. Reports of racial profiling at the venues where lectures took place, at management’s behest, on Monday, 3 October, are similarly of grave concern. Reports relate mainly to the staff of private security firms; therefore we find their presence as an attempt at “opening UCT” ironic. Moreover, their presence contradicts UCT’s nominal claim to an ideology of non-racial learning and education. While management has agreed to a full shutdown (lasting 5-7 October), we believe the executive ought to reflect deeply on its position on free education, in particular given its choice to use private security as a means to enforce openness.

Due to the above concerns, we will not resume teaching responsibilities until such time as the environment on campus is conducive to teaching and learning. Furthermore we refuse to be made complicit in the university’s notion of a “silent majority” who would allow management to forcefully “open” campus. As members of the CAS, it is our duty to consider the context of the curriculum we have been mandated to facilitate, which reflects the current political climate (including issues of race and decoloniality). Finally, as tutors it is our explicit responsibility to ensure the safety of our students.

We thus call for the following demands to be met before we will resume our teaching duties:
● The immediate resumption of student-management negotiations involving all stakeholders, with transparency and responsible mediation.
● A commitment to clear, honest and unbiased communication from management to all university stakeholders.
● The immediate demilitarization of campus, as part of a stipulated commitment to continued negotiations in good faith.

We once more stress that there had been little to no precedent for violence prior to the engagement of private security.

The decolonial project is just and necessary in terms of expanding the frame of reference of all students, as it embraces African dignity and knowledge epistemes within a global network. The events of the recent weeks have proven the need for reflection on the nature of the University experience for all members of our community, and cognisance of the reality that the institution needs to engage in an educational agenda that is decolonised, free and empowering to all. Creative and rigorous intellectual engagement that takes seriously the legitimate demands of protesters must commence immediately and the first step is undoubtedly the demilitarization of our campus.

Kind regards,

CAS Tutors:

Lufefe Boss, André Prado Fernandes, Vanessa Letch, Yoni Pakleppa, Natasha Skoryk, Mia Strand, Matt Winfield