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Right to Education

Wits students reclaim control

Written by admin  •  Tuesday, 18.08.2009, 16:25



Over the past two weeks, students and staff have collectively mobilized against Wits University’s silence regarding the presence of accused international war criminal, Lieutenant-Colonel David Benjamin, on Wits campus. As a result of persistent engagement by concerned members of the Wits community the Vice-Chancellor has publicly apologized. But this is not enough.

Due to student and staff action, management has undertaken an investigation into the allegations brought to the Vice-Chancellor’s attention. During Benjamin’s visit on 9th August, Wits students and staff were unduly obstructed from accessing Wits Medical School, some subjected to blatant racial and religious profiling. An unidentified group of young men acting as conference ‘security’ harassed and intimidated students, including peaceful protestors. And, although claiming to ‘value’ the right to protest, senior management attempted to halt a silent protest on the day, with the Registrar demanding that students and staff, “Get off the campus immediately or face the consequences.”

The protest was in response to Benjamin – self-admitted architect of the Israeli massacre in Gaza – speaking on campus. As Benjamin stated in an interview with Bloomberg News: “[the Gaza] campaign was a long time in the works, and we [the Military Advocates Corps] were intimately involved in the planning… Approval of targets which can be attacked, methods of warfare – it all has gone through us.”

The Vice-Chancellor has stated in his public response that any person who justifies the Gaza massacre (whether on legal, religious or historical grounds) would certainly not be welcome in his home. For us, like him, Wits is our home. As he compellingly argues in his public statement: “The traumatic experience of the children of Gaza haunts me. The destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods and the loss of their limbs and body parts horrifies me.”

Taking a stance on Benjamin is not complex. This is a man who is directly responsible for the illegal use of white phosphorus on civilian targets and the massacre of more than a thousand innocent people in Gaza. These actions are, without question, in direct opposition to Wits’ values.

The Vice-Chancellor has come out strongly in his personal capacity, yet he has failed to exercise his official responsibility, as custodian of the University, to uphold its values.

As regrettable as this failure is, the Vice-Chancellor and management does not exclusively own or define what we stand for. They have failed to make the statement strongly, and thus we are obliged to do so:

We hereby state that accused war criminals, racial profiling and the suppression of protests are not welcome on our campus.

We refuse to be complicit in war crimes and we refuse to watch the values of our institution be tarnished due to that complicity.

We reclaim what Wits truly stands for.

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