Adam Habib's dilemma

John Kane-Berman says calling the police back onto the Wits campus is high risk, but it may be necessary

Adam Habib would be justified in calling police back on to campus if necessary

Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), will no doubt be horrified at the thought, but he could do worse than pay attention to how Margaret Thatcher's brave leadership and brilliant generalship broke Arthur Scargill and his mining strike in 1985.   

Although the demand for free higher education still dominates discussion of the crisis at South African universities, the issue is no longer that but one of law and order. In particular, it is whether universities are willing and able to ensure that students who wish to attend lectures or write exams are able to do so in the face of disruption, threat, and violence. That is what they, parents, and taxpayers have paid for, and that is what the universities are contractually bound to provide.

Various misguided academics, journalists, and other apologists for some of the mayhem on campus claim that the right to "protest" should be protected. So it should. However, what students are up to at Wits and on many other campuses is not "protest", but something more menacing. Apart from using violence against fellow students, cleaners, and others to enforce their demands to shut down all the universities, some of them no doubt wish to destroy them as relics of "colonialism".

Professor Habib and other vice chancellors face a threat as dangerous as that which Mr Scargill posed to Mrs Thatcher's government and the British economy when he launched his violent year-long strike in 1984. She correctly defined the overriding issues at stake as the rule of law and enforcement of the law. She knew her key responsibility was to enforce the law in the face of violence and illegal picketing. She was also determined to protect the rights and lives of miners who wished to continue working in defiance of Mr Scargill's unlawful strike demand.  

Contempt for democracy is one of the things that some of our student activists and Mr Scargill have in common. At Wits the activist minority dismissed the results of  a poll showing that most students wished to get back to their books. Mr Scargill, of course, having previously lost strike ballots, was not willing to risk them again.  

Unfortunately, whereas Mrs Thatcher could rely on overwhelming numbers of properly-trained and well-equipped police to maintain law and order, our university administrators cannot. Any democracy is entitled to use coercion to defend human rights and the rule of law, but South Africa's tragedy is that the manner in which the police intervene is all too often itself inadequate, inept, and unlawful.

Student activists know this, just as the pre-1990 revolutionaries knew it as they prosecuted the "people's war", and they are quite capable of deliberately provoking the police into opening fire with live bullets. Calling the police back on to campus is therefore a high risk. But if the peace agreement supposedly reached last week does not hold, Professor Habib should not hesitate. 

The other great problem that Professor Habib and others, including the government, face is to avoid rewarding violence. He said last week that between R750 million and R800 million worth of infrastructure had been burnt at our universities in the last 18 months, and that not a single person had been arrested and convicted. There is now a huge risk that capitulating on the demand for free university education will encourage the use of arson and other violence to enforce demands all over the country.

Professor Habib is having another baptism of fire, his most searing yet. He needs the support of the entire community in any lawful efforts he makes to restore "law and order" on campus. That phrase, of course, is anathema to many people who regard themselves as liberals. But no part of liberalism condones trampling upon the rights of others, least of all when it is violently done.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.