In 2000, I was part of a campaign against outsourcing and neo-liberalism at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). As part of the Concerned Academics Group, one of several structures I was active in, I lobbied for the South African Sociological Association (SASA) to issue a statement firmly condemning the “Wits 2001” programme. SASA agreed, and I was mandated to draft the following letter, and get it signed by then-SASA president, Professor Fred Hendricks, a progressive of great principle.
The South African Sociological Association
SASA c/o Sociology Department, Rand Afrikaans University, Kingsway Box 624, Auckland Park
Vice Chancellor and Principal
University of the Witwatersrand
Private Bag 3
Dear Professor Colin Bundy,
At its meeting on Friday 28 July 2000, the Council and the Executive of the South African Sociological Association (SASA) – the professional association of South African sociologists- noted with great concern the intention of the administration of the University of the Witwatersrand to obtain court interdicts against a range of student and labour organisations (as well as named individuals) on campus.
These applications, which are being made through the Labour Court and the High Court, affect the
National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco), the Student’s Representative Council (SRC), the PostGraduate Association (PGA) and fourteen individuals. The interdicts will restrain protestors from engaging in a very wide of activities deemed by the administration to compromise the normal functioning of the University, and range from restrictions on noise, to a ban on damage to property.
The interdicts follow in the wake of a sustained and remarkably peaceful campaign against the administration’s “Wits 2001” plan by a range of academic, labour and student organisations. At the centre of the conflict is Wits 2001’s support for outsourcing support service functions (which led over 600 retrenchments on the 30 June 2000), the commercialisation of student residences and catering, the defunding of the social sciences by reduced subsidisation from other faculties, and looming academic retrenchments.
Whilst recognising the need to maintain an environment conducive to academic work, and without necessarily endorsing every form of protest, SASA nonetheless believes that the interdicts, if obtained, will not only fail to resolve the conflict on the campus, but, indeed, considerably worsen matters as they stand.
The interdicts will immediately polarise the campus, and greatly increase the likelihood of serious disruptions of campus life when the administration tries to enforce the court orders. The use of court interdicts – and the police presence on campus and arrests that it implies – will have the effect of fundamentally destabilising campus life, radically deepening enmities and conflicts in the institution, whilst also irrevocably harming the image of the University as a site of debate, free speech and learning.
Court interdicts will greatly reduce the possibilities of an amicable resolution, through rational discussion, of disputes on campus. They will create a climate of intimidation and conflict fundamentally at odds with the social role and responsibility of the University as a site of learning and knowledge production. An extremely dangerous precedent is established by the resort to the armed forces of the government to resolve internal problems (and enforce internal disciplinary codes) in the institution.
When it is noted that the conflict at the University is, after all, centred on the social responsibilities of the institution -to its employees, to its students (particularly students from poor backgrounds), and to the scientific project (and, in particular, the defence of science against commercialisation)- a repressive response is totally unacceptable. Such a conflict cannot be resolved by the use of police; such a response cannot be seen as any way compatible with the role of the University and its commitment to academic freedom.
We therefore call on the University of the Witwatersrand to immediately withdraw its application for court interdicts against the named organisations and individuals.
We further call on the University to reopen discussions and negotiations in good faith with all affected University constituencies regarding the Wits 2001 restructuring plan.
We further draw the University’s attention to SASA’s resolution on the restructuring of tertiary education, as passed at our July 2000 congress at the University of the Western Cape (attached). In this resolution, SASA unequivocally commits itself to the defence of public higher education against such restructuring as leads to the exclusion of poorer students through rising student fees, the retrenchment of service and academic staff through outsourcing and defunding, as well as commits SASA to the defence of research and learning in general from commercialisation.
Professor Fred Hendricks
President of the South African Sociological Association