Wits academics call for minimal security to allow teaching to continue

Over 500 sign petition

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Photo of people watching protest battle
Wits university students and staff watch running battles between police and protesters from one of the university’s buildings. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

Over 500 of Wits University’s approximately 1,700 academic staff have signed a petition calling for the university to stay open and for “management to deploy the minimal necessary security required to protect staff and students.” It was started on Sunday afternoon in anticipation of the university opening yesterday.

The petition says, that Wits academics have a responsibility “to our current and future students, and to their families, to complete the academic teaching year”. It says that teaching must resume “now”. It describes as intolerable the “violence, and threats of violence, directed at any members of the institution and its facilities”.

It acknowledges that students have highlighted “ongoing suffering” and commits to addressing this. It calls on all at Wits to “engage peacefully and respectfully with all university stakeholders in order to support the student demand for free education”.

Catherine Burns, who is in the Wits Institute for Research and Economic Research, helped draft the petition. GroundUp asked her why the petition included a call for security — which differed from similar letters sent to the University of Cape Town’s vice-chancellor Max Price by faculty members in Health Sciences, Humanities and Education that explicitly objected to more security being introduced.

Burns responded by email: “To garner wide support we listened to many people. It would have been fruitless and disingenuous to ignore the threats and intimidation many of us have experienced from some protesting students, as well as the poorly disciplined actions of security.”

She further stated: “Since we have all seen and experienced or know of classes being stopped via threats of intimidation it is foolish to write a letter that either ignores this part of the complex, or pretends that the use of security forces (police and private entities) at Wits is ‘the’ cause of violence.”

“‎The point of the letter was to reassert the bona fides of academic staff and our project. We are caring, committed, determined educators and researchers and we have a tremendous amount to offer. Imperfect as we are, we are all striving to meet the goals in this letter.”

“We know the stakes are very high. We decided to commit ourselves in public to these truths,” Burns wrote.

GroundUp is awaiting comment from a leader of the Fees Must Fall movement and will update this article when we receive it.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that Wits has approximately 1,300 academic staff. It was then pointed out to  GroundUp that the Wits website says there are about 5,000 academic staff. After correspondence, Wits confirmed that the actual number of permanent and part-time academic staff is approximately 1,700, the number now used in the article.

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