Cover image: Father Graham Pugin [photograph by Edward Molopi]

By Kelly Gillespie and Leigh-Ann Naidoo

In 2012, eighteen years after the end of formal Apartheid in South Africa, a small committee at Wits University in Johannesburg presented a set of recommendations to the University’s Senate on the question of the policing of campus protest. The committee argued that protest should be understood as ‘constitutive’ of the University’s identity in the wake of the anti-apartheid struggle and ‘essential’ to its culture. The committee wrote that the University had a special duty not only to protect the right to protest but to actively encourage it. ‘Protest as such—as much as the right to engage in it—must be regarded as a value at the heart of the University. Indeed, protest must be regarded as central to the values that the University actively aspires to transmit to its members, and as central to the educational project of the University as such.’[1] And with this special relationship to protest, should come a special relationship to governing protest. The university should not only encourage the right to protest, but be able to collectively withstand and engage the social dynamics of protest in creative and transformative ways.

At the heart of this engagement should be a commitment to avoid the involvement of state power in campus affairs, and rather to commit to a project of self-governance. ‘It is incumbent upon the University community as a whole’, the committee wrote, ‘to devise effective mechanisms through which to govern itself even at…moments of disagreement, tension and conflict.’[2] It was the closest the committee felt able to come to a direct call to close campus to police.

Within three years, however, the political space that these recommendations represented had been smashed by the calling of police onto campuses all over South Africa by the university managements to put down the national #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall Black student and worker strikes of 2015-16.[3] The presence of state security forces on campus put into sharp relief the question of how we make a compelling, persuasive argument against police on campus; how we could reopen the political demand for self-governance. In the midst of that struggle, we found ourselves grappling with the idea of autonomy, as it has been articulated in the history of the relationship between university and state power. The idea seemed so helpful, so obviously available for political use. And yet it kept tripping us up.

Our own racially-differentiated educations split across Apartheid institutions designed for the reproduction of racial capitalist social order means that we can never be lulled into the liberal assumption of campus as an autonomous cosmopolitan space, relatively free of social hierarchy. Universities have been systematically deployed for the consolidation of colonial and class inequality, even as they have also offered the possibility of space and time for its critique.[4] This history of modern universities and their consolidation of Eurocentric knowledge to ease the passage of inequality at a systematised global scale, means that any claim made about their autonomy from state power or their critical relationship to hegemonic formations risks a terrible naivety. Rather, universities in general have fulfilled particular tasks in the reproduction of the same material arrangement of power and resources that colonial states have pursued.

In this, our position came to be aligned with that elaborated by Dylan Rodriguez, who understands the university and the police as historically coterminous.[5] While liberal understandings of university autonomy and academic freedom presume that the police and the university are opposites, Rodriguez shows how they are embedded in the same condition. Even if they appear as opposites – as in the case of those who have been made historically ineligible for inclusion in university life, and are relatedly made eligible for police violence – they correlate in the sustenance they give as institutions of racial capitalism.

We understand universities, with Rodriguez, as a sites of ongoing contestation, where space for critical work has to be actively configured. There is no space for critique, for experiment, for anti-hegemonic work at the institution of the university without the vigilant effort to make it, much like at any other institution. This effort has to be made within universities against management and growing managerialism, against administrators, often against colleagues, sometimes against our own interests. Autonomy is not a precondition of academic employment. And as we are seeing, academic freedom can just as easily be invoked for right-wing and conservative agendas than by any project of the left.

We have experienced the kinds of battles Black colleagues, students and workers have had to fight in South African universities since the end of Apartheid to be able to undo pieces of the white university, in order to demand space for a Black and African experiment in knowledge practice. Universities can become places of struggle over curriculum and pedagogy, access, governance and subjectivity if there are people with political and pedagogical dispositions willing to take up that work. In this sense it is useful to think of the related autonomy of places of worship, and the reasons why those places have been considered separate and supposedly outside of the function of policing. In a highly missionised postcolonial context, it is impossible to imagine that churches are outside of the project of power, even as they have at times been able to use their land and symbols as venues for resistance. The point is that particular people at particular moments have done the hard work of using the space and congregation that the institution provides for a different purpose. The techniques and politics of that repurposing are what should be of interest to us.

In a post-Apartheid context in which universities have undergone a process of fast-tracked massification which opened higher education to Black students, a stark confrontation occurred between the colonial history of the institutions in which Black people were characterised as the objects of research, and the unanticipated contemporary student body whose subjectivities contradict and pressurise that history. It was this tension that broke open into the recent strikes, which rallied around the call for free, decolonised education. Black students and workers shut down universities and repurposed campuses for organising and negotiating demands. The strikes brought with them repertoires of protest that were instantly recognisable as Black township/working class struggle, at odds with the rarefied space of the middleclass universities built for whites.

When Black students began amassing in protest on historically-white university campuses, for a time the police were reticent to intervene. There was far more media attention than ever accompanies police action in Black township protest, and the association of those campuses with valuable lives – white and resourced, historically unavailable for police violence – persisted. Policing can be understood as a measure of the play of the social distribution of value. The value accrued to universities as a result of their infrastructural role in the history of South Africa’s race and class project created an esteem that was less about the value of education as a process worthy of space and time free from interference, than about the value of whiteness and its related class privilege. If universities were cast as enclaves of nonviolence, as safe places to be protected and not violated by state power, it had more to do with the protection of race and class interests than a commitment to the sacredness of learning. As Rodriguez reminds us, ‘[e]ven while some are relatively privileged by the institutional logics of relative de-criminalization, their bodily mobility and academic progression are contingent on the state’s capacity to separate and “protect” them from the criminalized.’[6]

At a certain point in the strikes, police began to recognise Black students as viable targets even if they were on historically-white campuses.[7] This marked a crisis of value at the new intersection of white space and Black life in the wake of Apartheid. Police began to use their weapons on Black students in ways that mimicked racist crowd-control in Black townships. The urgent political question was how to protect striking students from being criminalised and devalued, treated as if they were in Black township space. But in order to make the argument that students should not be treated thus, we needed to do so without relying on a history of valorising the colonial distinction between the white university and its Black outside. Any naïve claim on university autonomy risked reinscribing the very racial and class hierarchy that the student uprising had put so powerfully into dispute, and which positions the university as being not-township, not-Black, not-working class.

At some point in the escalation of protest and police violence against students, the Deputy National Police Commissioner, a Lt General Gary Kruser, was deployed to oversee the policing of the campus protests across Johannesburg. Senior managers of the university were pleased when Kruser arrived because they thought that police officers on the ground might be more restrained in their assault on students if a high-ranking member of the police force was observing and coordinating.[8] Kruser is important in this story because he configures so much recent South African political history in his career. He was a member of Mkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), which he served in exile until the fall of Apartheid. He was deployed by the ANC to co-ordinate the teams of bodyguards for Mandela and other top leadership of the party as they participated in negotiations towards the first democratic election in 1994. He was then absorbed into the South African Police Service to assist with the integration of former liberation soldiers into the post-apartheid police force.

This exercise in drawing liberation fighters into the security infrastructure of an ANC-led government was the primary mechanism for the legitimation of the police after Apartheid. It was also a primary technique to demobilise the liberation movement into centralised state power. By the time Kruser was deployed to put down the student movement in Johannesburg, he had worked in the National Intelligence Agency, established the policy for local policing strategy, acquired a degree in policing practice, a diploma in security management, and had become a central figure in South African policing. In short, he had, as one ex-MK operative put it, ‘become more police than the police’.    

The extreme forms of police brutality against students in the period of uprising overseen by  Kruser are well documented.[9] Running battles between students and police both on campus and in the city blocks around campus saw many casualties, including a priest shot in the face with a rubber bullet while trying to protect his church as a space of refuge for students.[10] Eventually, the student strikes were put down, and students who participated suffered terrible consequences. Many active students dropped out of their degrees, suffered PTSD, had to go onto medication (or self-medicated) for trauma-related anxiety and depression, some even institutionalized in mental health facilities.[11]

Whether the escalating violence was directly attributable to Kruser’s management or to trigger-happy police on the ground is unclear. But what is clear is that after the strike was shut down with police violence, the university’s management under the Vice Chancellorship of Adam Habib hired Kruser into a Directorship position as Head of Campus Security at Wits University. Prior to this hire, campus security comprised of a lightly-trained contingent of guards who had a more or less friendly relationship to students, and were considered a constituency of worker solidarity action on campus. Kruser’s hire brought all of his accumulated policing knowledge, including his time in the National Intelligence Agency, to upscale the sophistication of the security detail on campus. In a presentation to faculty members about his new position, Kruser indicated that his job would entail gathering information to pre-empt and stave off the escalation of protest on campus. His hire occurred at the same time as Wits University implemented a biometric security system, introduced a new unit of highly-trained security in noticeably different uniforms, and drones began to be seen in the airspace above campus.

In defending the hiring of a high-ranking member of the police into a management position and the installation of more security infrastructure on campus, Habib argued that in order to protect the university community from police violence as well as from provocateurs and activists not officially part of the student or faculty body, the university needed to secure its boundaries and develop its own capacity to manage protest. The deep irony is that the call for self-governance that was being made in the years before the uprising to allow for protests to unfold as a necessary part of university life was here perverted into the drawing of police and anti-protest securitization deeper into the internal workings of the university campus and community. This irony is not attributable simply to history, but to the Machiavellian moves made by Habib and other Black post-apartheid leaders who twist and abuse radical histories towards the maintenance of the status quo. With lip-service to self-governance and autonomy, the university upscaled its own policing functions, accrued directly from the police itself.

There are many ways in which an argument for the autonomy and self-governance of the university can backfire against an abolitionist agenda not only to get police off campus, but to use universities as spaces for the redistribution of knowledge and power to those people, places and relationships that have been most devalued in our societies. If we want to argue that campuses should be fashioned as a kind of clearing, an experiment towards a different kind of society, we need to recognize that such clearing is always at risk of being coopted and perverted by histories antagonistic to our work and vision. We have to make the clearings and defend them, understanding them as connected not to the white and bourgeois history of universities themselves than to other radical autonomous experiments ongoing in places well beyond the university, from which we must draw inspiration, with which we must build connections and to which we must offer support.


Kelly Gillespie is a political and legal anthropologist with a research focus on abolition and transformative justice in South Africa. She works at the department of Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape, and cofounded the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) at Wits University. She works beyond the university in popular education projects supporting a broad range of social justice formations.

Leigh-Ann Naidoo is an educator and organizer based at the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. Her intellectual and political interests include social movements as sites of knowledge production, the roles of education in resistance movements, histories of radical education and student resistance, from the formation of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, to the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student formations.

[1] “Statement of Principles and Values Regarding Protest on the Wits University Campus”, Submitted by the Senate Working Group on Protest, 1 June 2012, chaired by Professor Eric Worby. Senate Policy documents, University of the Witwatersrand, S2012/1238

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a discussion and objection to how this took place at the University of the Witwatersrand see Gillespie, K. & Naidoo, L.A. Abolition pedagogy: forcefields of critique. In Critical Times, 4:2, August, 2021, pp. 284-312.

[4] Menon, Nivedita. The University as Utopia: Critical Thinking and the Work of Social Transformation. Critical Times,1 April 2019; 2 (1): 85–105. doi:; Maldonado-Torres, Nelson (2012) “The Crisis of the University in the Context of Neoapartheid: A View from Ethnic Studies,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 10: Iss. 1, Article 10. Available at:;

de Sousa Santos, Boaventura. (2016). The University at a Crossroads. In Decolonising the Westernized university: Interventions in philosophy of education from within and without. Eds Grosfoguel, Ramón, Hernández, Roberto, and Rosen Velásquez, Ernesto. London: Lexington Books; Choudry, Aziz and Vally, Salim. “Lessons in Struggle, Studies in Resistance” in Choudry and Vally (eds). 2020. The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe. London: Pluto Press.

[5] Rodriguez, Dylan. The Disorientation of the Teaching Act: Abolition as Pedagogical, in The Radical Teacher , No. 88 (Summer 2010), pp. 7-19. Rodriguez’s argument goes beyond an Althusserian generalism to discuss the particular ways in which education, much like the police, has been purposed as a technique of racial capitalist hierarchy.

[6] Ibid, p.9.

[7] See

[8] We hesitate to cite this book, as it is a collection of spurious claims by the author, who uses the book to justify his decision to call the police onto campus. Habib, A. (2019). Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

[9] A Double Harm: Police Misuse of Force and Barriers to Necessary Health Care Services: Responses to student protests at the University of the Witwatersrand, September to November 2016. Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, 2017.

[10] See  

[11] See