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Militarised campuses should be avoided at all costs, say MPs


South Africa’s university safety crisis must not lead to an unhealthy learning environment, meeting hears

South African MPs have warned of a creeping militarisation at the country’s public universities and called for common security protocols.

The MPs, who serve on the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation, were responding to a briefing on 24 February from the Department of Higher Education and Training on safety and security challenges faced by universities and colleges.

The briefing follows several high-profile security incidents at the country’s institutions. In January, an assassination attempt against the University of Fort Hare’s vice-chancellor left his bodyguard dead. The Academy of Science of South Africa last year noted a rise in attacks on academic staff, and violent student protests rock campuses each year.

The education department said in its briefing that a 2022 study found that around half of the universities that participated held safety and security campaigns only once a year, despite the need for security all year round.

Several universities invested in private security, on top of standard security and policing, with the University of Zululand and the University of Johannesburg investing noticeably more in private security than other universities. The University of Venda spent the most on bodyguards, the study found.

‘Standardised procedures needed’

Committee chair Nompendulo Mkhatshwa raised concerns about how the presence of a large number of security personnel affected students. “Over-militarisation of campuses has become an issue,” she said, adding that students live in fear of the security personnel and their weapons.

Mkhatshwa said that instead of ever-increasing security details, universities needed protocols on how to handle violence on campuses. She implored her fellow committee members to come up with concrete resolutions that can be implemented in the sector.

“We need to standardise procedures of how security is handled in the post-school education and training system. We cannot be having a situation where one institution is doing it one way while another is doing it differently.”

Karabo Khakhau, a committee member and MP for the Democratic Alliance, noted that there seemed to be no synergy between the South African police, private security companies and campuses.

In response, Lulama Mbobo, deputy director-general at the education department, said the department was working closely with the police service to assess the security needs of universities and develop minimum physical security standards.

Six universities did not participate in the study: the University of South Africa, the University of Limpopo, Sol Plaatje University, the Central University of Technology and Nelson Mandela University.