VC’s response to open letter from concerned staff

Dear Concerned CPUT Staff

Thank you for your letter expressing your concerns for the current situation at our university.

Please bear with me as I briefly outline some of the issues raised in your letter in anattempt to address every issue contained in it.

The increased security staff on campus has in your view had the following consequences: A climate of fear, where staff members do not speak out for fear of victimisation from management. Staff is prevented from interfering with security staff even if they find them causing bodily harm to a student. The presence of external security staff on campus adversely contributes the already fragile mental state of students and staff, which most recently led to a student committing suicide. Another issue related to the presence of increased security staff on campus is the removal of said staff last year following reports of unprovoked violence against students. You also mentioned the lack of compassion from security staff towards a student injured while trying to climb over the barbed wire fencing enclosing most of the Cape Town Campus and the recent searches of students’ rooms at some residences.

You claim that the climate of fear at this university has led to a fundamental breach of the ethos of academic freedom, where dissent is erroneously viewed as betrayal. Furthermore, that whereas the previous Acting Vice-Chancellor had an open-door policy, which emboldened staff to approach him with their grievances, I do not.

You conclude your letter with the following demands:

  1. The immediate removal of Vetus Schola and the demilitarisation of our campuses
  2. Immediate entry of independent peace monitors onto all campuses, together with independent mediators
  3. Convening an urgent university assembly
  4. Implementation of restorative justice.

The management team and I share in your urgency to find a speedy resolution for the current crisis and appreciate the fact that you are in agreement with us about the complexity of the matter.

It is unfortunate that you see a link between the climate of fear and the presence of extra security staff on campus, when the reality is that CPUT is obliged by law to provide a safe working environment for staff and students – a community that numbers almost 40 000 individuals. Our own campus protection services have been compromised as result of their partial allegiance to protesting students and ultimately they do not have the capacity to deal with the current situation.

In my view, the majority of staff and students take comfort in the level of security afforded them because it provides them a measure of safety as they come to and from class and work every day. What is often forgotten, is that we are also the custodians of public facilities, paid for by taxpayers, which MUST be protected. Lastly our private security is guided by a strict code of conduct, which mandates them to firstly be clearly identifiable and have clear lines of accountability. Since the start of the latest period of unrest in July of this year, the university has spent close to R30 million on private security services. There has never been a directive for university staff to not interfere with security staff when they are seen to be harming students.

I would also like to point out that this university has never restricted access to the media on our campuses. Media freedom is enshrined in the Constitution and we always strive to keep the media up to date with the latest happenings on campus. My team and I have also not tried to control the narrative as you allege, but allowed many voices, including your own, the opportunity to express an opinion.

In my view dissent does not equate to betrayal and I’ll be the first to encourage and promote academic freedom. Academic freedom is a value we must all espouse through our actions and not only with words because if all are in favour of it, no small minority however powerful can infringe upon that freedom.

It grieves me that you perceive me as not being as accessible as my predecessor. I cannot literally have an open door due to the extra demands made on me by the current crisis. Staff members are free to email me directly with their concerns and I will seriously consider each grievance and try to address in whichever way I can, if not directly to the person then during the many discussion on various platforms and meetings convened for us to deal with the crisis.

The suicide happening as a result of the current situation is completely unfounded, as this was a 4th year student and the incident happened during Spring break, a time when the private security was not even on campus and the campus was operating as normal.

The student being injured by the barbed wire is another unfortunate incident. In such a case it would be advisable for the student to lodge a formal complaint without which we cannot act. The barbed wire is deemed necessary for access control and nothing more. My office has yet to receive any substantiated evidence of misconduct by Vetus Schola and I invite anyone with such evidence to bring it to me or to report such to the whistle blowing hotline anonymously.

With regards to the searches conducted at some of our residences, please be advised that the searching of CPUT property, which includes residences, is provided for in our institutional policies, rules and regulations. It is also highly unfortunate that you should question assertions that illicit drugs, alcohol and illegal occupants (people not registered as student at the university) were found during these searches or that you would frame the actions in the same context as those perpetrated by our former oppressors. In communicating these facts we were not casting aspersion on students leaders, we were only reporting what was found in the rooms.

We cannot accede to your demand that the extra security be removed because until the level of violence on campus drops significantly we are obligated by law to ensure the safety and security of the whole community. Our campuses are open to peace monitors, so surely they don’t need a formal invitation to enter our campuses. Also, we hope that their mere presence on campus would diffuse the heightened tensions and create more suitable conditions for dialogue.

Let me be clear on the matter of a university assembly. It is our view that what the students are in effect calling for is nothing more than a mass meeting, the likes of which has been twice agreed to by management in 2016. On both occasions the meetings ended in chaos, violence and threats on staff lives. In the current volatile climate it would be irresponsible for us to allow a mass meeting of this nature to go ahead.

Could you please clarify how you foresee restorative justice being facilitated in our current climate. It is my wish that it be brought about sooner rather than later and I would prefer the discussion on how to bring it about to start soon too.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Nhlapo

Acting Vice-Chancellor

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