“These are guys who shoot first and ask questions later”
Last month, as protests intensified on campuses across the country, Jane Duncan, a professor at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) was prevented from taking a photo of the Tactical Response Team (TRT) on campus. As journalists across the country are increasingly facing intimidation and violence while covering the student protests, Magnificent Mndebele speaks to her about censorship, public order policing and why violence is on the rise.
As student protests intensify across the country there has been a disturbing upsurge in violence. University infrastructure has been destroyed and public property damaged. Police have used strong arm tactics firing rubber bullets and stun grenades at students. On some campuses curfews have been imposed and journalists threatened.
“It’s out of control”
Jane Duncan, a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and author of ‘Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa’ says that social movements, including the student movement, starts off using peaceful means and formalised methods of engagement. However when movements feel as though they are not being listened to, those who want to make their grievances heard can turn to more radical forms of protest.
“If you regulate protests in a way that amounts to censorship, then you are going to anger people. When protestors become angry, they become radicalised. And some protestors may choose to engage in more disruptive or even violent forms of protest because of that,” she said.
Duncan insists that when protestors feel like their grievances are not heard, those complaints do not disappear. “People become even more determined to make their grievances heard by any means necessary,” she said.
Trained to use maximum force
Duncan spoke openly about the ‘shocking’ use of public order policing on campus and is particularly concerned about the Tactical Response Team (TRT) being called on to campus.
“The TRT is one of the most controversial policing units in the country. It was one of the two units that was responsible for the Marikana Massacre… they have not been held accountable for their role in the Marikana Massacre, so it’s particularly worrisome,” she said.
On 26 September, Duncan took an image of the TRT even though they tried to prevent her from doing so.
“The reason I wanted to document their presence on campus was because they shouldn’t be involved in public order policing. Their role in Marikana still hasn’t been dealt with, and the other thing is that they are trained to use maximum force rather than minimum force… so [TRT] are the guys who shoot first and ask questions later. And because of that it’s particularly inappropriate for them to be deployed on our campuses,” she said.
UJ students have felt the heavy presence of private security on campus for months. They refer to them as ‘bouncers’. Recently students have thrown stones at them during protests and they have reciprocated saying that “the students are wrong; our job is to protect the university buildings.”
The amount of violence they use is excessive and they have been seen physically fighting with some students. Non-protesters have even been pepper-sprayed and assaulted. Journalists have also been assaulted and ordered to delete pictures and videos taken of the violence on campus.
Protestors become ‘socialised into violence’
Duncan says that when protest is banned or if those protesting are attacked, ‘protestors don’t necessarily stop protesting’.
“Protestors become hardened, they become socialised into violence, and because of that, they start to think that violence is a justified means of self-defence… If the state is acting in a way that’s violent, if the state is acting in a way that does not respect the law, if the law itself is lawless, then the state becomes delegitimised and people can turn around and say ‘we need to meet violence with violence’, I think that’s what’s going on at the moment.
Duncan is part of the Right2Know Campaign, an organisation that recently held a seminar in Cape Town and invited the private security board. “A representative of the private security board was called to explain the role of private security in policing protests on campuses, and he basically admitted that they don’t have the trainings to police protests on campuses,” she said.
She said that more security on campus may not be the right answer. “Are they going to continue to employ more security guards and bring more police onto campus to deal with these issues? It is not the right way to deal with this problem. I think there is a massive fear of engagement and stability is being kept through authoritarian means which I think is completely inappropriate,” she said.
Citizen journalists should not be censored
Duncan also emphasised that students are playing an essential role, through formal media institutions as well as social media, acting as citizen journalists, and they are well within their right to take pictures and videos.
“There is something called the Police Act which is an apartheid era law, which forbids pictures being taken of the police. But there is actually a standing instruction for the police which instructs them to allow people who are associated with the media to take pictures of the police. So they should be allowing people to [take pictures],” she said.
“Students have been playing an extremely important role in acting as citizen journalists, documenting what is going on and particularly the kind of police and security guard abuses,” she said.
“Students are on the ground and they’re exposing abuses of power by members of the public and private police, and [university management] should be welcoming that in fact not trying to hide it…the university’s management is not doing enough to make it clear to the private security that the role of journalists, including citizen journalists, is to report,” she said.
Duncan said that if student journalists are being intimidated, they should write to the university and the South African Communications Association (SACCOM).
“We actually got a press statement developed by SACCOM which was sent directly to the vice chancellor, complaining about the fact that journalists are being frustrated from doing their duties on campus. So if you are experiencing these things or any other students are experiencing these things you must let us know and we’ll take them up through the relevant structures,” she said.
If one thing is clear, there is no going back to ‘business as usual’ for South African universities. Journalists must be able to do their jobs in this environment, to get out as many stories as possible and better forms of engagement need to be used on campuses as a matter of urgency.
Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg. She was the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, and has written widely on freedom of expression, the right to protest and media policy. Her latest book ‘Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa’, challenges the way South Africans think about violence during protests and the increased militarisation of the state.