Stampede for securitisation of UCT clouds logical argument

A response to Judge Dennis Davis by members of Staff for Social Justice in Education

Photo of staff protesters

Staff at UCT picketed against an interdict against student protesters obtained by the university. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

By Leslie London

8 November 2016

This response to Judge Dennis Davis’s recent article on GroundUp is endorsed by 31 UCT academics. The list of names appears at the end of the article.

Judge Dennis Davis’ opinion piece on the Fees Must Fall protests (Academics and the Fallist movement, 4th November 2016) raises some important questions in a sometimes thoughtful way, but at other times appears to bankrupt its own argument by an excess of reductionism and broad generalisation. It takes a broadside at academics who have not been willing to join the stampede calling for the securitisation of our campuses and, strangely, blames them, rather than the main protagonists, for the outcomes of the protest movement. In the end, this kind of argument is ironically not very different from the extreme radicalism that Judge Davis castigates amongst the students. Here’s how it goes.

  1. The “politics of the disrupters” (which Davis argues “should be seen for what it is – at best populism which has its racist doppelgänger in Trump voters”) is presented as a homogeneous single entity. “Disruptors” disrupt for the sake of disruption but not for any other reason. Anyone who has been following the debates within the student movement will know that there are many strands and arguments about this strategy and there are few who do not have a goal in mind when discussing disruption. However, if you rely on what the media represent to the public, one might well be forgiven for thinking that disruption for disruption sake is all that is on the agenda, and that is the norm across all settings. It is a pity that Davis, who is an eminent legal academic and a former judge, would not want to see more evidence before leaping to this conclusion.

    For example, in the Health Sciences Faculty at UCT, there was a concerted effort by protesting students making use of numerous forms of disruption and discussion, that had a strategic goal of bringing the Faculty Management to a point of negotiating on 34 key demands students. None of these demands was outrageous. The disruption was instrumental to attaining an agreement between the Faculty Management and the students, which was finally achieved and signed off between students and faculty leadership. It was not disruption for disruption’s sake. It was disruption that achieved a strategic goal without violence, injury or destruction of property. It also built a measure of trust between students and management that, while fragile, is important for the collaborative work that must be done to address reasonable demands. But it was not widely reported in the media because it was not a narrative that fits the dominant idea of disruption for disruption’s sake. The assumption that there is a politics of disruption that exists for its own sake and that this politics is somehow the only politics of the protest out there is a fiction.

  2. Davis poses a distinction between legitimate support for the two demands of the Fallist movement – free higher education and decolonisation of the curriculum – and the illegitimate support for the strategies of disruption to achieve that. Davis then argues that “Some of our academic colleagues seem to refuse to accept this distinction. They justify any action by students even when workers, who happen to be security guards, are badly beaten. Violence, intimidation, hate speech are met with silence.”

    This is quite a sleight of hand. It implies that any support for students’ action that is peaceful and disruptive is simply the same as support for any action that is violent and abusive. Academics who stand by the right of students to protest, even where that disrupts university activities, are then tarred with the brush of being in the same camp as “kill all whites”, “Fuck the Jews”, and “Hitler was a great leader.” We are not aware of any academics justifying any assaults on workers. We are not aware of any academics who encouraged students to throw rocks or destroy property. We are not aware of any academics who turned a blind eye to such actions. We are, however, aware of academics who, at personal risk to themselves, defused a number of potentially volatile situations by mediating between private security, police and protestors. Some of these academics spent many long hours shadowing the student protestors and worked tirelessly to prevent violence on campuses at UCT. There have, since last year, been numerous pieces, by academics supportive of the broader cause but not necessarily all the tactics, to comment on, and critique aspects of the student movement and specific events (most recently see Vashna Jarganath’s piece). Davis’ assumption that because he has not seen/found/heard statements of opposition reflects more on his own engagement than those of other academics who have been fulfilling a supportive but critical role.

    However, it would seem that because an academic might entertain the idea that a protest may result is disruption of normal activity, they are automatically branded as lending justification to violence, intimidation and hate speech. The idea that if you support protest, you were also automatically a communist was commonly argued in South Africa under apartheid and in many other countries where repressive regimes sought to crush resistance. Using wordbytes such as “kill all whites”, “Fuck the Jews” and “Hitler was a great leader” to apply to all academics who want to hold the university and students to some common principled vision is simply smearing them by association, is not critical and lacks a logical argument.

  3. Davis implies that academics currently engaged with the Fallist movement were somehow invisible when police brutality was unleashed against striking platinum miners in 2012. He notes that he must “look in vain for the public comment from some of these voluble academics when Marikana happened.” We find this comment most peculiar. Many of the academics we know of participated in various actions around Marikana, were active in social movements at the time and made comments in various forums, about which perhaps Davis was not aware.

    But, in any event, why does that make any difference to their credibility? We know many activists from the anti-apartheid movement have been thoroughly captured in the current neoliberal political environment and serve interests and goals vastly different to what they did when campaigning against injustice. Would laying your life and career on the line for the Marikana workers make any action you take under the Fees Must Fall protest instantly legitimate? This can’t be the case at all – we have seen former activists become oppressors as we have seen former members of the apartheid order accept, understand and act in ways very different to their previous values systems. The only conclusion is that Davis is simply trying to discredit academics who do not share his perspective by implying that there is a seeming lack of consistency - which must then automatically invalidate any legitimacy.

  4. Davis acknowledges that “a university cannot be policed as many of us know from our experience of apartheid.” He goes on to ask “but what is supposed to be done when a major weapon is violence and intimidation?” This is at the core of the current disagreements on our security forces on campuses and there is no easy answer to this question. But the point is that support for students involved in protests and disruptions has never been such that it justified the use of weapons, violence or intimidation (as Davis claims). In all the engagements we have seen, in all the Whatsapp communication from academic observers and mediators attempting to defuse situations, in all the efforts to encourage students and management into a negotiated settlement, there has never ever been a blanket acceptance of the use of weapons, violence or intimidation by students. The principle has been to protect the democratic space for protest, whether it is disruptive or not, so as to prevent violence.

    When academics oppose the calling of security onto campus, it is not to facilitate thuggery on the part of a small number of students. It is not a mindless exercise of saying anything the students do is legitimate in protest. It is because we fear that the militarisation of our campuses will generate a counter-violence, a climate where exactly that “small group of disrupters who are bent on violence” can ratchet up the atmosphere to undermine any negotiated protest dealing with the real issues. On many campuses the intervention of SAPS and private security has provoked or escalated violence. Militarisation of our campuses generates a climate in which information becomes the first casualty - witness the myriad examples of security force action reported in one way by the university and the authorities and reported completely differently by students (including students not actively protesting who happen to be on site) and the reports of independent observers.

    Here’s an example from our experience. Student disruption in the Health Sciences Faculty resulted from a situation where protesting students were not being heard and had been rebuffed by management, resulting in an occupation of the Dean’s offices and its renaming after Hamilton Naki. Interventions by academic staff with our Faculty Management secured a commitment from Faculty leadership not to call in security unless essential services were disrupted or protests became violent. A negotiated process between students and faculty led to a document setting out the terms of the line beyond which security would have to be called. The result - the protests were disruptive but not violent. The faculty had to pause, but no students were beaten by police, no staff members were assaulted and no property destroyed. We created an environment in which negotiation could be given a chance before resorting to force. Of course, this is an example in a particular context and cannot be easily generalised to a whole institution let alone to a whole educational sector. But it speaks to the willingness of leadership on both sides – students and management – to trust a process of negotiating difficult spaces. If we had followed Davis’ advice, we would be nursing a bloodied and battered campus, with deep and perhaps permanent rupture of faith amongst the academic community – staff, students and management. Nowhere in the wider university are we aware that a similar attempt was made to bed down a set of working rules to map out the line beyond which security would be called.

    Academics supporting the student protests and opposing the militarisation of our campuses are not opposed to the presence of police and security simply as a principle – rather that the terms under which they are called upon are not used as leverage in negotiation, not grasped in desperation as a substitute for engagement and not done in a way that is likely to escalate the conflict. Academics who are against the militarisation of campus are also concerned about the implications of this for university autonomy, freedom of speech and the ability to teach under such conditions. Both the threat and use of violence by students and the threat and use of violence by private security are unacceptable and should be clearly condemned for the same reasons, because they make engagement and discussion, let alone debate and learning, impossible. The “Who started it” line of argument seeks to justify the excessive use of force by security before understanding the legitimate complaints of the students.

  5. Davis then arrives at the rather weird question “What other than naked populism or opportunism explains how we have medical doctors who sanction, at least by implication, violence?” It is unclear who these medical doctors are that are guilty of the claims made by Davis. He provides no evidence of when or how doctors or other academics have sanctioned (by implication or otherwise) violence. Secondly, as we have indicated above, the initiative by Staff for Social Justice in Education at UCT, in which a number of medical doctors and other health professionals were involved, actually helped to avoid violence on all sides. Engaging with students to protect a democratic space to protest, even when that protest involves disruption, does not equate and has never equated to sanctioning violence. Thirdly, it is peculiar that Davis would use an opinion piece in a media publication to anonymously smear medical doctors through disingenuous use of a sub-clause, “by implication.” Whose implication is this and how would the courts interpret such an ‘implication?’ After all, Judge Davis is an eminent jurist and legal academic and must surely know that he can’t hide behind innuendo to smear other parties. Or is Judge Davis playing to the court of public opinion, in which an accusation, once made in the public domain, retains a life of its own even if it is found to have no basis? There is simply no evidence to support this kind of innuendo.

  6. Davis ends with a rather bitter castigation of “a group of academics who will have destroyed the opportunities to give millions who deserve, as a right, the very best of tertiary education, purged of its excessive Eurocentric bias.” In this, Davis appears to believe that the full crisis in higher education spurred by the Fees Must Fall protests should be attributed to the academics who have refused to accept a militarised solution as the only solution to crisis. Not only is this based on a flawed analysis of the different threads of support offered by different academics (there were many different groups involved with different positions) in the protests, but it is an incredible act of wizardry to take the hugely conflictual and complex terrain of the protests across multiple stakeholders and institutions and blame it simply on academics who managed to irritate Davis sufficiently that he wrote a poorly reasoned and vituperative opinion piece in Groundup. No-one has suspended their “ethical” and “critical” sensibilities during this time – if Davis took the time to talk to any academics who have been grappling with these issues, everyone will tell you how it has been incredibly difficult and challenging in many different ways. Yet Davis would have us believe that academics are simply supporting thuggery.

    It is precisely this arrogance and dismissiveness that has led students to challenge the institutions, sometimes in ways that are not acceptable. But those of us with shared principles (if differing opinions) who have been involved, not just from the sidelines or from the safety of social media, are confident that we have thought long and hard about the ethical choices to be made, and made decisions which neither valorise violence nor disregard deep inequality and unfairness – both historical and current. Like the situation of the students protesting, academics providing a perspective different to the dominant narrative are not being heard – certainly not by Davis. It is our view that attempts to contain the protests without security force action, in ways that can generate a shared commitment to decolonised free education, will be the best opportunity to advance the academic project. Davis’ assertion that an unthinking, unreflective, uncritical group of academics will “have destroyed far better than they could ever have contemplated” is patronising. What some academics have done is to try to build a safer and more sustainable, respectful and creative academic environment, when we reconvene going forward.

At the end of the day, Davis’ argument is that if you are not part of the dominant narrative, then you are part of the problem. How different is this from his characterisation of the student protestors as undemocratic demagogues who brook no dissenting views and reject mandates?

All the following signatories are members of the Staff for Social Justice in Education group at the University of Cape Town: