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Open letter to Adam Habib: Ishtiyaq Shukri calls on Wits to terminate its contract with ‘unaccountable’ private security firms

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The Silent MinaretI See You

 
Ishtiyaq Shukri has written an open letter to Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and the members of the Senior Executive Team.

Shukri is the author of the EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret, and his most recent novel, I See You, has as a central concern the implications of the rise of the private security industry.

The book features a scene set in the Wits Great Hall in which the main character makes an impassioned speech about freedom and private force that, read now, seems prescient.

 
In his letter, which was prompted by the shooting of Father Graham Pugin just off campus, Shukri calls on university management to “demonstrate conciliatory leadership”, to “consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care” and to “terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms”.

Read the letter in full:

Dear Professor Adam Habib and Members of the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand

I have in recent months been increasingly alarmed by the growing levels of militarised violence deployed against students from the #FeesMustFall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand by private security firms paid for by the University. I despair at the failure of imagination demonstrated on the part of the University in its inability to find and employ amicable forms of management and conflict resolution, and its readiness to resort to the old South African recipe of force to settle disputes instead. I am deeply concerned by the model the University has presented to the country: that in South Africa violence and force are commodities for sale to be purchased, at undisclosed amounts, even by a university. Purchased by senior executives – not of a corporation, but of a university – executives against whom such force is unlikely ever to be deployed. Private force, purchased by a wealthy institution to be aimed at its poorest students. And I am especially disturbed by the recent shooting of Father Graham Pugin of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church next to the University. While I have wrestled with writing to you before, following his shooting I can no longer remain silent now.

I’ll just state it plainly. South Africa is under occupation by private military and security firms now in possession of a combined arsenal of privatised force which already outnumbers that of the state by five to one. And while they have the capacity to deploy levels of violence and force that surpass those of the state, they are not accountable to its citizens or to the state. In a democracy such as ours, state forces are rightly accountable to the citizens, and in the case of the shooting of Fr Graham, the Deputy National Police Commissioner Gary Kruser has apologised unconditionally and set up an official investigation to be headed by the Gauteng provincial commissioner. Commissioner Kruser is not doing us a favour. In a democracy, he is holding himself accountable, just as he should. By contrast, unregulated private military and security firms are only accountable to their shareholders, shareholders for whom the use of force translates into the escalation of profit; profit to which you have contributed untold amounts. The threats posed by private military and security firms have been a long-standing concern of mine and are a central to my novel from 2014, I See You. One of the novel’s main characters, Leila Mashal, outlines the threats in a key scene. I mention this to you only because that scene takes place in the Great Hall at Wits.

Having imagined the threat of privatised force in my fiction, I have found it very difficult to watch the violence unfold at Wits in reality, of which the shooting of Fr Graham is a startling escalation. Is nothing sacred anymore? When I set that fictional scene at Wits, the last place I imagined would one day become the setting for the greatest public manifestation to date of the occupation of South Africa by privatised forces was a university, was indeed Wits University itself. This vexes me, because it is not easy to see the boundaries between fiction and reality implode at Wits, and because to me their collapse signals that the occupation has penetrated even our most respected centres of higher learning. You have stated that you have on a previous occasion reviewed footage of claims by students regarding brutality and abuse by private security agencies at Wits. You claimed to have found nothing to support those allegations. Maybe. But today I ask you to review the footage of images of brutalised priests and students now emanating from Wits. Are they evidence enough? Do you see what we see? What the rest of the world can see – even the Pope in Rome? Whatever these private security forces may have protected, it wasn’t the reputation of the University and it certainly wasn’t Fr Graham.

In January 2016, concerned Wits faculty and staff wrote to you requesting the University to terminate its contract with these private security firms. Writing on behalf of the Senior Executive Team, you rejected their request.

Following the shooting of Fr Graham, I call on the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand to demonstrate conciliatory leadership. I call on you to consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care, if not on a contractual basis, then at the very least on an ethical one. I call on you to reconsider your decision, and for the University to terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms. In the face of their insidious occupation, which is now at least no longer invisible, is it not also the responsibility of a university of good repute to be discerning about the threats they pose, to demonstrate dissent by also shedding light on how they undermine our democratic procedures, and to take the lead in standing up to defend those procedures rather than participate in their erosion through silent financial transactions with secret unaccountable forces? And if these are not also the responsibilities of a university, then to whom do we entrust them when we are under occupation?

Sincerely
Ishtiyaq Shukri

11 October 2016

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