University of Johannesburg criticised over private security firms

THE University of Johannesburg has come under pressure from the student Right2Know campaign to disclose information relating to the surveillance of students engaged in protests. Under South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (2000), the University has until the beginning of April to respond to the request for the information. A statement from Right2Know claimed “it is outrageous that basic information about the security arrangements has been kept from the university community”.The information demanded by the Right2Know campaign is confirmation of whether the University paid private security guards R300 a day to spy on students around campus and on public transport in an effort to identify and collect information on those students who took part in protests against increasing tuition fees.On the 2nd of March, eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) screened an account of private security firms being hired by the University of Johannesburg. They went undercover around the campus and gathered information such as the names, appearances, and conversations of any student who engaged in the #FeesMustFall protests. The information was released on eNCA‘s investigative show Checkpoint.According to one guard, he was paid R300 a day to take notes while on the inter-campus buses and identify the names and faces of protesters. According to the statement released by Right2Know, they said “more and more‚ as university managements have resorted to private security to militarise campuses‚ they have become accountable only to themselves‚ while putting low-paid workers on the frontline to manage the crisis for them”.The #FeesMustFall protests, which started in October 2015, briefly ended in 2016 when fee increases were cancelled, before resurging after increases for 2017 were announced by the Minister for Higher Education. The movement lost momentum in late 2016 after being accused of sabotage by those connected to the South African government and internal divisions.An increase had been announced in funding for higher education to the sum of R17 billion over a period of three years. Property damage incurred during the protests was estimated at a cost of R600 million.Right2Know insists that the covert surveillance is only part of the problem, complaining that it is connected to reports of assaults, threats and intimidation of the student body by the private security firms hired by the University. The lack of democratic accountability for these firms is hindering investigation of the reports, according to the campaign.