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Universities crisis: what way forward?

Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

3rd October 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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After months of failure to engage politically with the crisis in universities, the president has called what is dubbed a representative forum around the fees crisis. This co-exists with government statements that appear both to delegitimise the protests as “counter-revolutionary” and to give the go-ahead to security forces to clamp down.

It will be good if conditions can be created for universities to re-open, so that students can complete the academic year. It is crucial to avert this potential loss. Insofar as the poorest students are concerned it would avert a catastrophic result creating havoc with the income of their families. But there remain a range of issues beyond the consequences of losing an academic year that are not addressed by deciding to open the universities. The conditions under which they are opened depend on contested factors.


There is no doubt that the Wits referendum, with the assurance of a security presence, was an imperfect way of resolving the shutdown of classes, an issue that also arises immediately at UCT and is an issue at other universities. By the time this is published it may well be that the situation at Wits and UCT will have deteriorated. At any rate it is unlikely to be trouble-free and there may be many other institutions that are closed and further damage to infrastructure. That is why universities have deployed private security with SAPS on standby.

The UCT Humanities Dean’s Advisory Committee suggests that classes cannot be resumed while private security is present. Their presence cannot be the basis for completing the academic year. They call for: “No further securitisation or militarisation of campus in order to ‘guarantee’ that campus opens on Monday. We do not support the calling in of security to force the campus open.”


That question must now also be addressed within the context of the state declaring its intention to clamp down on protests, calling for heavy sentences for offenders. The protests are labelled as “counter-revolutionary” and aimed at “regime change”. This was prefigured by statements earlier last week by Blade Nzimande referring to the actions as “anti-ANC” and led by “ultra-leftists”. This is language that does not allow debate, for a label suffices to delegitimise.

Is there a democratic right to shut down the university?

But do some students have a right to close down the university and stop classes? What is unclear is who is shutting down universities, though it may vary on different campuses. Is it is part of a broader strategy with definite short and long-term goals? When some people arrive at a lecture hall and order out the students and lecturers, on whose behalf are they acting? With what authority do they issue the command? Is there any debate possible? Is there explanation as to how the shutting down of lectures leads to some broader goal, notably “decolonising” the university?

We do not know who it is that gives some the right to force others out of classes, often without any preliminary discussion of alternatives. We do not know what, if any, constituency is represented in the forcing of students out of classes. Is it not a fundamentally undemocratic action, the use of force as opposed to operating with a democratic mandate?

There have been a series of actions where no-one claims responsibility for, for example, the burning of libraries or paintings, though there are some who have provided a generalised justification on the basis of destruction of the “colonial” character of the works that have been attacked.

Since those who perform the deeds do not claim responsibility, they cannot justly claim that this is the work of revolutionaries, who would proudly claim what they have done and why. No-one has given them a democratic mandate to perform these acts of destruction nor the burning of buildings and other structures at universities.

It is possible in these situations for a very small group of people to cause a lot of damage. That is how sabotage works. It is not the work of an army in every case, but can be small groups using guerrilla tactics to commit great damage.

Let us be clear. It does not require bravery to destroy a civilian building like a university library. It is not guarded in the same way as apartheid installations used to be.

If there are these legitimate security questions that are fundamentally undemocratic, how does the statement of the UCT Humanities Faculty propose that they be addressed? This is not said in a spirit of denial of the damage done to the character of universities through securitisation. But the question for me is: if there is a continuing danger, how is it addressed? The existing systems are undoubtedly problematic. That does not mean that security, as such, can be eliminated.

The security question

In some senses those who opposed the Wits referendum pointed correctly to the problem in asking for a vote to open with an assurance that “security protocols” would be in place to ensure that functioning is allowed.

There remain questions around what type of security is appropriate, given on the one hand the disruptions, as well as destruction of valuable property at various universities, and on the other hand, the repeated evidence and testimony of abuse by private security as well as SAPS.

While the guarding of buildings may, if it is restricted to that and does not entail the harassment that is reported, be reasonably easy to justify, how will other disruptions be addressed? Jane Duncan has correctly said that disruption is not in itself an offence. But presumably disruption of the right of a student to attend a class or a lecturer to deliver a lecture represents an invasion of a right to choose, which in the case of the Wits referendum has been endorsed by the majority of students and staff.

Clearly private security has not been trained to deal with student unrest and there needs to be a clear definition of their role and duration on campus should there be no other way of addressing the question of safety of students, lecturers and the buildings and resources of the university, in the short run.

There is repeated evidence of unauthorised attacks by private security on students and sometimes staff, including sexual assaults as well as theft from residences in the case of Fort Hare and other universities. This makes it urgent that universities beef up their own in-house security, trained in a manner that is in conformity with the democratic character of educational spaces.

The question of decolonisation

Students and many staff continue to have problems about unresolved issues in relation to how the universities function, the spoken or unspoken racist elements that may perhaps be encapsulated in the notion of pervasive “whiteness”. This means returning to unreconstructed curricula, the unresolved aspects of the fees question, accommodation and other issues.

We owe a debt to the Fees Must Fall movement for puncturing the myth that entrance to universities has been on an equal basis. It is important that in addressing the fees question, that other elements of the costing are not omitted where they make it difficult for students to register, be accommodated at all times that are necessary including when writing supplementary examinations and have food and healthcare.

The question of decolonised curricula has to be raised with adequate awareness of the complexity of tackling it, given that the staff who conduct the “colonial curriculum” unless all were fired, will have to implement the decolonised curriculum. How is this to proceed? From what has been reported, the initiative appears to be in the hands of university structures, and it is unclear how the students intend proceeding. That needs to be addressed more thoroughly than through prevailing rhetoric.

What is the student movement and what is its future?

I do not speak with direct knowledge of what is happening in diverse ways on very different campuses. One thing is clear is that there is not one student movement. There is no clear way in which decisions are made that are accepted by the broad student movements on any single campus. On some campuses SRCs enjoy more legitimacy than on others. On some campuses there are loose formations operating under the rubric of Rhodes Must Fall or Fees Must Fall who claim to be the authentic voice of the student body.

At one stage this lack of structures and absence of formal leadership was part of a rationale for a more democratic approach to remedying the hierarchies that make some members of organisations voiceless.

The problem with lack of structures is that there is no basis for deciding which decisions are in fact democratically based and binding on others. It also leads to a lack of responsibility for whatever actions are taken.

If the student movement wishes to have an enduring impact, it needs to build organisations that will last. That takes time. It also needs to relate to those who disagree on the basis of mutual respect, and without violence or other forms of coercion.

Is there a way forward?

There are voices on social media speaking of lack of understanding of “black pain” and that in the light of the broader dispossession experienced by black people, the loss of an academic year in what is often described as a revolution, is a small thing. It would be interesting to hear what a broad range of parents say of this.

And that points to the pain that very many people feel at the jeopardising of the future of those who may lose this academic year and much more. Chancellors and convocations have entered the fray at a late stage. It is urgent that parents are systematically involved. It is said that they will be present in the meeting called by the president today (Monday), but how representative can such parents be of students as a whole, in so hastily called a meeting?

Much as the students may resist engagement with previous generations who struggled against apartheid, there needs to be an inter-generational dialogue. This is a time for the counsel of parents and others from an older generation to step in and be heard.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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