Security has been beefed up at Professor Adam Habib’s official residence at the University of the Witwatersrand following “safety concerns”.
The vice-chancellor confirmed that measures have been taken to protect his house as a result of recent threats.
“It’s a very unfortunate thing. I don’t know of many places in the world where university vice-chancellors are threatened.”
However, Habib was reluctant to respond to a question on whether he had moved out of his official residence because of security concerns.
He said he did not have any personal bodyguards.
“My family and I have been attacked [verbally].
People have been making all kinds of verbal statements.”
“We have had security concerns at various moments last year and also earlier this year and recently. There was a request [by protesting students] to walk into my house. I said ‘No, I will not receive it’. But it was a security concern. I interpreted it as a threat to my family and so we have had threats; that’s about all I can say.”
Last month, protesting students demanding free higher education aborted a planned march to his house to deliver a memorandum.
On Tuesday, Wits was plunged into total disarray when students and police became engaged in running battles, with police firing stun grenades and teargas at protesting students.
During the violent skirmishes, which made international headlines, students also hurled stones and rocks at police and overturned a police vehicle.
Commenting on the police action on campus, Habib said he believed police should be trained to quell protests in a way “that is compatible with a democratic society”.
“It’s about getting people trained appropriately and that’s something, at some point, we have got to address.”
In a lengthy interview with the Mail & Guardian, Habib said: “I want to know why we allowed the group [of protesters] to get as large as it did. We had a strategic plan that said we wouldn’t allow groups to become big. They [the police] were part of the plan. It was their plan but it didn’t happen and when that didn’t happen, things spun out of hand. That for me is what the tragedy is.”
He said that they would not have had the violent scenes that played out on television screens if police had stuck to the plan.
“We wouldn’t have had the disruption of the academic programme and those regrettable actions where teargas and stun grenades were used.”
He said that according to the police, they thought they would be able to contain some 60 to 70 students who had broken through a point in the university’s perimeter fence.
“They [police] thought that, rather than disperse them, they would contain them and as they contained them, it got bigger and bigger. That’s the problem. They thought that was the best they could do in the circumstances. My problem is that it went against our plan but that is the nature of things I suppose.”
He was scathing of the thinking by some student groups and others in society that “if we don’t get anything, we just threaten to burn and then somebody will cave in and give it to us”.
“That’s a bad and dangerous practice. I do think it’s a practice that needs to be addressed because this will spin out of hand.”
Habib was also critical of a tweet by Wits student activist, Shaeera Kalla, in which she expressed disgust at, according to her, Habib’s statement at a higher education imbizo on Monday that students want their own “Marikana moment”.
“Miss Kalla is being particularly duplicitous. She knows what I said. She doesn’t read the whole thing because she has a hidden agenda and this kind of provocative behaviour has become typical of some leaders and it’s very, very dangerous.”
Habib said he has been accused of owning 37% of shares in auditing firm Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo, which was hired to verify the poll conducted at Wits last week to gauge whether staff and students wanted the academic programme to resume.
“If I owned 37% in that company, wouldn’t it be Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo Habib?”
He said he had also been accused of planting petrol bombs on campus.
But Habib said he was not focusing on the “noise”, but on the goal of getting the academic programme back on track.
“I am less worried about whether somebody has said something annoying about me. That’s not my focus at the moment.”
He has received overwhelming support from vice-chancellors locally and abroad as well as hundreds of emails from students saying he should keep the university open because they wanted to graduate.
“I’ve had many leaders write to me from all parties expressing support and making sure we keep the academic programme open.”
Habib said he had also received calls from the university’s funders, who were also very concerned about the student unrest.
Wits receives R2.5-billion in research funding annually.
“I have had multiple concerns from funders since the beginning of the year around the stability of the system.”
He said he had to address many funders as well as boards.
“Many of them see the South African higher education system as the only system on the continent that has a level of sophistication. They are worried that if this level of sophistication goes, the impact on higher education on the continent would be dramatic.”
The university community will on Friday participate in a general assembly, where everyone is expected to support the call for free higher education.