Wits academics affirm right to protest in response to threat of action

HIRED FORCE: The university hired private security in riot gear to evict protesting FeesMustFall students. Photo: Michelle Gumede

HIRED FORCE: The university hired private security in riot gear to evict protesting FeesMustFall students. Photo: Michelle Gumede

by Masego Panyane and Michelle Gumede

Academics have responded strongly to the statement issued by Wits stating that they should respect security protocols as laid out by private security companies or risk facing the chop.

Last week Wits issued a statement to staff members warning them about violating “security protocols” related to fees protests with possible termination.

“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 jeopardising the safety and security of our campus and thereby violating their own conditions of service,” read the statement.

The Academic Staff Association of Wits University (Asawu) released a statement saying academics are allowed to protest but “this right to protest is not, however, unfettered.” The conditions are stipulated by the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

According to the statement, protests no larger than 15 people do not require prior permission while those with 16 or more participants do require it. However, an exception to this rule can be made for “spontaneous protest”.

“Its very spontaneity is a defense against liability for failing to give prior notice and seeking prior permission,” reads the statement.


The union has also shown displeasure at the amount of security personnel on campus that has been called in to stop the  protesting students. It highlights in its statement that some institutions received orders from the government to increase the security on its campuses during this registration period. Asawu says it is concerned  by the apparent interference of the government in tertiary institutions and that this threatens autonomy and academic freedom of universities.

Asawu has called for patience and understanding of its members and students during this time saying: “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.”

Asawu’s statement also follows an open letter sent to academics by  Vice Chancellor Adam Habib that he wrote to the academic staff who have complained about the use of private security in response to fees protests this month.

“The current strategy of shutting down the university is, in our view, detrimental to the task of building a transformed and academically excellent institution,” wrote Habib.

The open letter addresses issues such as the consequences of postponement of registration, protecting the rights of all and what Habib said was “complacency” of some regarding violence or the threat of it within protests.

“I will never remain silent and allow a culture of violence and ungovernability to prevail within an institution of learning. I will never remain silent when a university and its learning project is being sacrificed to broader political goals, however attractive they may be,” Habib wrote in the letter.

The Anthropology Department’s Dr Kelly Gillespie was a part of a group of academics who took to Facebook to voice their displeasure, accusing the university of “very good at spinning image” while bringing heavy-handed security guards onto campus.

“As far as we know, never in the history of the university has this type of securitisation been used on campus. Even during the darkest days of the apartheid regime, the university was maintained as a space for the free expression of protest, ideas and critique. Habib thus goes down in history as the VC to bring down this kind of disproportionate repressive security detail onto the space of our campus. Nothing he says can take that fact away. No amount of resuscitation of his anti-apartheid history will obscure it. It will always mark his history at Wits,” Gillespie wrote.