Zeblon Vilakazi. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Zeblon Vilakazi. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Once again Wits University, where I work, has shown that it is teaching the younger generations entrusted to its care the lessons of fear, anger and violence.

In the face of a modest protest we shut down the university with a display of overwhelming force, pushing desperate students out into the streets of Braamfontein, where they must try by whatever means they can to make themselves heard. And where they are confronted by the violence of our brutal police.

This is what took place in 2016. This is what took place over the past week. It was this that set off a chain of events culminating in the death of Mthokozisi Ntumba and the injury of several students at the hands of the police. Once again Wits is failing to contribute to building democracy in SA.

Universities have a mission to pursue truth through reason and argument, and to nurture new generations of young thinkers. They have an important part to play in the creation of democracy — and this includes protecting the right to gather and protest. Yet at the merest hint of protest Wits responds with repression, cultivating an atmosphere of siege and fear.

This pattern was set by the university's response to #FeesMustFall in 2016, when the refusal to engage with students, the intensification of security, the mobilisation of police for long periods on campus, the prevention of gatherings or protests, and curfews and escalated violence on campus finally drove the students into violent confrontations in Braamfontein. That period saw unacceptable levels of injury to our students from teargas and the firing of rubber bullets. We were fortunate that no-one died then.

We are reaping the whirlwind sown by the previous vice-chancellor who, despite his carefully curated public representation as a visionary leader, established an autocratic and authoritarian regime in which dissent was dismissed and coercion of frustrated students became the norm. The result was, and is, an impression of a fearful and isolated executive team, for whom students are a dangerous and unruly other.

No university can thrive in this climate, nor can it be a place where democracy is strengthened. In a country like ours, with its legacies of repression, intolerance and violence, democracy will be forged through robust contention, the willingness to risk and to listen, and a passionate commitment to experimenting with new ways of working together — or not at all.

This is especially the case when new generations bring fresh perspectives and demands. If universities cannot create space for this, what hope does the broader society have of doing so?

One can only hope that our new vice-chancellor, Prof Zeblon Vilakazi, will respond to the challenges of our time by breaking with the trajectory established by his predecessor and forging a new relationship with students and staff. He will find many enthusiastic to work with him.

Prof Karl von Holdt
Wits University

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