Violence against SA academics

So here is the question: why are university academics increasingly becoming targets of student violence?

This weekend saw the tragic death by suicide of yet another South African academic, the University of Cape Town’s Dean of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi, and UCT Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng directly linked student protests to his untimely passing.

Student violence directed at lecturers, including emotional and psychological violence and blackmail, is a global phenomenon and can be hard to understand. Sometimes the attacks are politically motivated; other times they are not. However, all attacks threaten the dignity and safety of staff, and negatively impact on both the academic profession and the learning process. Moreover, experts say that all incidents, personal or political, tend to share one characteristic:  they are not random, but usually the end result of an understandable and often discernable process of thinking and behavior.

Looking at this in the South African context, there are roughly three categories of “violence”: the individual who takes violent action, the triggering conditions that lead students to see violence as a solution, and/or the institutional setting that facilitates or permits the violence to unfold (or does not do anything to stop it from happening). And the “targets” tend to be selected based on two factors: student motives, and the target’s accessibility – with those most vulnerable obviously at the most risk.

The United States is pushing Behavioural Threat Assessment as a preventative measure. For cash-strapped South African universities, I don’t consider that this would be particularly helpful. We all know what students need, and what they want, ranging from decent bridging programmes (getting many school leavers equipped for university), through decolonized curricula, to increased financial aid and not having to pay fees. We know exactly what times of year to expect mass student protests, with many universities’ security staff being able to tell them in advance more or less when to expect trouble.

Personally, I have been told quite categorically that my individual safety cannot be ensured by university security during any student protest. Consequently, a quandary arises when during a protest and class disruption, one is ordered by executive leadership to stay teaching as normal. Being thrown out of a lecture is potentially dangerous and extremely undignified, and not something for which any sane individual would willingly set themselves up.

The individual threats are not so easy to deal with. For many of the small private “universities”, simply being strict in class and being soundly disliked by your students is enough to get you fired. Most of these academics are on contract, and can be instantly dismissed if a class or student (who are, after all, considered as “clients” in such bums-on-seats environments) lodges a complaint – too strict, too condescending, too unkind. The list is endless.

In mainstream universities, administrations tend to turn a blind eye to lecturers being threatened. Even insisting on an armed guard while you’re lecturing doesn’t appear to cause any concern, and either one is dismissed as “change resistant” or thrown South African education’s newest rhetorical phrase: restorative justice.

The purpose of restorative justice is to move the focus from violence or damage caused, to “repairing the harm that has been committed against the victim/s and community”. Offenders are supposed to take responsibility for their actions and commit to a plan to mitigate the damage they have caused (Gon, 2018). Evans (2017) describes the concept as having three central priorities: relationship-building, repairing harm and creating more equitable environments.

UCT recently tried restorative justice. Eight students found guilty of serious misconduct in 2016 – including transporting containers of petrol and tyres onto campus; defacing, removing and burning artworks from three buildings; illegally entering residences, threatening staff and stealing food; barricading roads; occupying the university’s administration and preventing staff from working; committing assault; and defacing university properly – were awarded amnesty.

The UCT story is a long one. Suffice to say, I think that administration is creating problems for the future. I don’t think there has been sufficient dialogue or redress, or apology for hurt. Frankly, what restoration can be offered when someone is dead? I worry that a whole new generation of students now has a precedent for behaving in a violent and/or criminal manner. And, worse, some colleagues at that institution are increasingly anxious about what they can say and how they say it during lectures, let alone their personal safety.

Prof Phakeng said the late Prof Mayosi was badly affected by the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests, and had taken three months’ leave earlier this year to deal with depression. She said the occupation of his faculty during protests had “hit him hard”.

“It’s a pity that we as an institution didn’t listen to him then…draw on his strength, make sure he is happy.”

She said Prof Mayosi had experienced pressure from staff and from students, and emphasised “black students”.

Prof Phakeng stated that she is aware that many of her staff are depressed and anxious, have survived heart attacks, are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and are still in their jobs. “Things are tough,” she said.

That is probably the understatement of the year.

South African universities tend to call in the police and employ private security companies once a protest and/or security situation gets out of control. This ceding of responsibility to external law enforcement to address the risks posed to students and staff is a form of disaster management, creates bad feeling for both staff and students, and in the long run doesn’t really help. Universities need to address the fundamental issues at play, including an overwhelming and misguided sense of entitlement among students.

Mayosi was gentle, kind and brilliant.

So to answer the question, why are South African university academics increasingly becoming targets of student violence? Because it is so damn easy, that is why.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in July 2018.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s