Adam Habib’s open letter, on behalf of the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand, justifying the use of a private security force to respond to continued #FeesMustFall protests has drawn quite a few critical responses. Most of these I agree with to a certain extend, and many ask serious questions that need to be interrogated. However, overall, I have felt that there were elements missing from the understanding of the presence of these security forces on South African campuses. I will not reiterate the many points that have already been made, but want to question the presence of security forces from an acknowledgement of intersectionality when it comes to gender.
Brian Kamanzi, in his response in the Daily Maverick, has highlighted many of these important questions, and on a whole I tend to have similar views. I agree with the sentiments that Kamanzi expresses, especially when he raises the following:
The question then becomes, surely, does the unchallenged “order” of the present lead us any closer to a potential full realisation of the right to education? What if the normal functioning of the university is in itself is party to the reproduction of social inequality? Is it not then defensible to disrupt this functioning in order to make structural change possible?
These questions are important, and they genuinely challenge the arguments that Habib has made. Kamanzi’s response further highlights that the financial expenses that these private security forces incur “tells us important things about ideology and how it operates in our public institutions”. Yet, what is missing in his response is how this ideology is inherently patriarchal, rooted in a violent masculinity; the questions of this unchallenged “order” need to be further understood in light of this.
Habib argues that private security allows for “[…] limitations can be imposed”, as opposed to public order police; yet he makes this argument in terms of the absence of guns and rubber bullets, while failing to see how he positions himself as complicit in the sexual violence that private security have committed. It is quite ironic that Habib’s letter opens with reference to threats made to a female staff member, when later he essentially dismisses the sexual violence that the security forces have committed under his mandate. As Natasha Vally and Sarah Godsell have pointed out in an open letter they posted on facebook, Habib’s assertations of denial in this instance is the same attitude that rape survivors face when it comes to their “accusations”. It is essential that Habib’s open letter, as well as the presence of private security on any campus in light of #FeesMustFall protests, is framed intersectionally; the fact is that these private security forces are another extension of a violently patriarchal system put forward by institutions where the cisgender heterosexual male still rules supreme.
Regardless of arguments on the legitimacy of violence (whether from the side of protesting students or private security), by those who have argued up and down on social media and so forth, it is a simple fact that private security forces are sexually harassing women and non-binary students. Interrogations of the presence of these security forces need to thus take into account a gender context. In fact I would argue that in every public engagement where I have heard Habib and other Vice-Chancellors speak, they have acted as patriarchs who seek to keep their house in order according to their terms; and this is why their supposed support for free education rings hollow to me, not because of their deflection to government, but because their refusal to acknowledge the intersectionality of the debate. In part this has been lost even within #FeesMustFall movements internally even, yet it is essential that access to education is understood in the context of continued rape culture on South African campuses. The imposition of a largely cisgender male private security force that has committed such violations needs to be understood as a further dismissal of the barriers that women and non-binary people face in accessing these spaces. It is a further perpetuation of rape culture when private security sexually harasses and assaults students who are protesting. It is another tool to further silence women and non-binary people, to – so to speak – “put them in their place”.
For a large part of last year the hashtag #MbokodoLead has been used to highlight the leadership that (cis) women took in #FeesMustFall (while trans women and non-binary people were equally vocal and present, I do would argue that they were too often made invisible, but that is an argument I will expand on some other time.) Whether intentionally or not, the specific sexual nature of how private security forces have reacted to female students protesting becomes part of a patriarchal system that seeks to undermine women at every angle. It is a simple dismissal of the role women and non-binary people play in these events; and the reaction of Habib to these events show the cisgender male privilege he has ended up imposing on his campus. The mandate of Vice-Chancellors to “maintain order” – as Habib expresses – is thus a mandate to maintain a patriarchal system, made real and tangible by a private security force that has no regard for women’s bodies, trans bodies, non-binary bodies. In this regard, the use of these private security forces cannot be justified in any way.
Even if there were no “clear” instances of sexual violence, still one needs to interrogate the presence of large cisgender male security forces on South African campuses. At UCT, harassment from the regular campus security is already an issue, and this was only further amplified by the presence of security forces who sexually harass those they read as “female” by catcalling and so forth. The sheer presence of cis male “authority” that is displayed in the form of scores of cis male bodies that are expressly there to police campuses according to the mandate of a university management that has repeatedly put the lives and rights of perpetrators of sexual violence and rape above that of the survivors is telling as to who the space itself belongs to. The entitlement that private security forces have shown in terms of the women bodies, trans bodies, non-binary bodies is a perpetuation of the entitlement that cis men act on daily in South Africa.