OPINION | Humairaa Mayet: Wits has a history of stifling voices; Wits University responds

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Students at the University of the Witwatersrand gather at the Great Hall steps. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla
Students at the University of the Witwatersrand gather at the Great Hall steps. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

Wits student Humairaa Mayet writes that post #FeesMustFall, Wits has become a highly securitised and politically sanitised space in which students are actually discouraged from engaging in activism and political activity. Wits' senior communications officer Buhle Zuma refutes that in her response to Mayet. Read both views below. 

On 21 April 2022, the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) held a peaceful picket on campus. Wits PSC members gathered on the bridge overlooking the M1 Highway. The picket was held to raise awareness about the recurring vicious attacks by the Israeli occupation forces against worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. 

Approximately 50 people were on the bridge, waving flags and holding posters, when Campus Control intervened and attempted to stop the protest. At first, the security guards demanded that students disband but soon became angry and began shouting and threatening students with disciplinary action

Formed in 2005, the PSC is an organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the Palestinian struggle and advocating for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against apartheid Israel. 

Previous PSC chairpersons recount their own experiences of silencing and policing of their activities by Wits Management. In 2013 Professors Adam Habib and Loyiso Nongxa, the two Vice-Chancellors of Wits University, admitted that the university has come under financial "pressure from donors who support Israel," and that, "there have indeed been some individuals who have threatened to withdraw their donations." 

Suspended suspensions

This came after students protested an Israeli embassy funded piano concert because it broke the Wits University SRC cultural and academic boycott resolution of Israel. Eleven students were charged for peaceful protest and subsequently handed a suspended expulsion through a kangaroo court to appease Israeli interests within the university. 

In 2014/15 the Student Clubs and Societies manuals and constitution were amended by Wits Management to create a separate process specifically and exclusively for Palestine related events to be approved.  

Wits Management enables the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) to hold public events at the same time as the international Israeli Apartheid Week (an annual international week of Palestinian solidarity) even though this is a deliberate provocation. SAUJS targets not only the PSC but Palestinians at large, refusing to acknowledge the systematic occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel, which has been deemed as 'illegal' and 'apartheid' on multiple occasions by the United Nations, Amnesty International and all international mainstream human rights organisations. 

"If a queer rights organisation is having a demonstration on campus, the university doesn't go out of its way to accommodate religious organisations who oppose them," said a previous member of the PSC.

READ | 'We stand in solidarity' - organisations condemn 'police brutality' at Wits protest

Wits has a history of stifling the voices of progressive students. During the #FeesMustFall protests in 2015/16. Wits brought armed police onto campus and deployed private security firms. Students were peaceful and unarmed. Wits militarised response led to heightened altercations and the unlawful arrests of many students. 

Again in 2021, Wits sent security guards and the police to intercept students protesting against financial exclusion. During the Asinamali protest, cops opened fire and shot rubber bullets into the crowd. This resulted in the murder of a bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba

Politically sanitised space 

For an institution which claims to be "distinguished for… commitment to social justice in Africa and beyond," Wits appears to be doing the exact opposite. Post #FeesMustFall, Wits has become a highly securitised and politically sanitised space in which students are actually discouraged from engaging in activism and political activity. Threatened with suspensions and expulsions, students have to deal with private security, Wits security and the police.

We call for a healthy campus spirit of freedom and critical scholarship rooted in our shared humanity, commitment to justice and international solidarity for all people everywhere. Is this not after all how we as South Africans won out against the evil system of apartheid? This year Wits celebrates its centenary, and the celebration of "Wits radicals", student activists and academic freedom, but the university management was not progressive during our anti-apartheid struggle and is not progressive now.

Humairaa Mayet is the current Chair of Wits PSC, a member organisation of the South African BDS Coalition

Wits University responds: 

Firstly, Wits University rejects the allegations put forward by the Wits PSC that it represses Wits students who support the Palestinian struggle. Rather, the University provides a platform for diverse voices to be heard, and encourages rational engagement and debate, particularly around contentious issues, which is exactly why the University agrees to different clubs and societies hosting events during Israeli Apartheid/Awareness week (IAW) every year.

The allegation that the University favours one student group above the other is baseless, as each group is responsible for organising its own stalls/exhibitions during the same week, are given the same resources, and are allocated the same amount of space. It is up to the student groups to convince their fellow students of their respective positions. The IAW is organised in conversation with both groups where the rules of engagement are discussed and negotiated, including discussing support requirements.

Secondly, the PSC did not inform the University of its intended plans, nor apply for permission to hold the picket or protest, on 21 April 2022, and it was thus an unauthorised event during the graduation season. Why did the PSC not follow the University’s rules? Why did they not apply for permission to picket or inform the University of their intention to have an event on campus? What would happen if every student club and society did not follow the University’s rules? 

Thirdly, it is illegal for any club/society to have a picket on the bridge that crosses the freeway. This is a breach of the City’s by-laws, as the distraction could be dangerous to motorists driving beneath the bridge.

All the historical examples stated in the piece, penned by Humairaa Mayet are misleading and not factual. For example, some students were found guilty of disrupting a concert some ten years ago after an independent inquiry– the findings were made public – it was not a ‘kangaroo court’. In another instance, the writer intimates that the University can influence the South African Police Service. This is not true - matters of public order fall under the purview of the SAPS. The University brings in private security when required – to protect people and property when our internal protection services officers cannot manage alone.

- Buhle Zuma is the Senior Communications Officer of Wits Communications Services.

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