The text of a statement I wrote when I was a Media Officer for the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF). This followed a protest at the “Urban Futures” conference at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), 14 July 2000, organised by the APF. The conference was largely organised by  the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council (GJMC) and Wits university, then in dispute with workers over neo-liberal restructuring plans. It was labelled a “communiqué” as a play on Wits’ practice at the time of calling its official statements “communiqués.”

Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) Communiqué Number 1: “Disrupting Whose Urban Futures?”

July 2000

To all academics, workers and students

Disrupting whose urban futures?

The Anti-Privatisation Forum notes with regret that Vice-Chancellor Colin Bundy has used the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits) scarce financial resources to misinform the public about events at the institution on Friday 14 July 2000.

It is also with regret that we note the Vice-Chancellor’s use of disrespectful language in describing protestors from major trade unions, student and civic structures (which represent hundred of thousands of people across the country) as “uncouth” and “shameful.”

We stress that the protest at the last session of the Urban Futures conference organised by the Anti-Privatisation Forum – a coalition representing church, trade union, student and community structures- must be understood in its context.

The two main organisers of the conference – the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council (GJMC) and the University- are both major employers presently involved in disputes with organised labour over their restructuring plans, both of which are in line with the government’s controversial neo-liberal GEAR programme.

The GJMC has been involved in a two-year battle with SAMWU and IMATU over its controversial iGoli 2002 plan to privatise and commercialise council functions and dismiss thousands of council workers. SAMWU and IMATU charge that iGoli 2002 will lead to massive retrenchments, poor services and increasing electricity cut-offs as services are commercialised, and worsen conditions in the townships.

Wits has just fired 620 workers as part of its controversial Wits 2001 to create a “market university” despite the well-reasoned and rock-solid objections of NEHAWU, and replaced them with cheap contract labour at half the wages (and below the minimum wage). Wits 2001 has also been opposed by SASCO, the SRC, the PGA and other structures because it undermines conditions in the residences and canteens, raises student fees, and excludes disadvantaged students from higher education. Academics have opposed Wits 2001 for privatising research and science.

The Urban Futures conference was a major showcase for iGoli2002 and Wits 2001, tied into events such as the “Rocketing You into iGoli” exhibition and the Wits’ “Strategic Plan,” opened by Trevor Fowler and closed by the GJMC’s Kenny Fihla and Wits’ own Colin Bundy.

In this context – where workers are terrorised by job insecurity, paid poverty wages, thrown out of stable unionised public sector jobs into the prison of unemployment or into union-bashing outsourcing companies, where communities face electricity cut-offs, where poor students are excluded from higher education, where labour and community concerns and objections have been systematically ignored by the rich and powerful – it is indeed rich for the Vice-Chancellor to cry violation of “free speech.”

The Vice-Chancellor, who did not see fit to cry foul when crying workers begged for their jobs, who refused to listen to objections by local and international unions, who ignored academic critiques of Wits 2001, who refused to defend labour rights, now finds it a problem that a small group of protestors made a noise for an hour-and-a-half.

As for his administration’s own violation of the Wits’ Code of Conduct (which calls for the ethical treatment of people, the promotion of social responsibility, fairness, courtesy, respect for persons, and accountability) the Vice Chancellor is silent. He does not see any violation of free speech in retrenching workers and throwing their families into poverty, or in ignoring academic, labour and student objections to Wits 2001 for over a year.

There is a clear danger here of losing sight of what really counts! The low-key disruption of a small part of an enormous and lavishly funded Urban Futures conference clearly counts more for the Vice-Chancellor than his own disruption of the urban futures of real working class people.

The Vice-Chancellor’s threat to take “steps” against protestors is simply a continuation of the practice of silencing opponents in the University.

It is evidence of the increasingly authoritarian, non-collegial and non-consultative management style that is becoming the norm at Wits.

**The Anti-Privatisation Forum is a coalition of church, labour, community and student groups.

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