Go back

Campus violence and threats ‘have reached crisis point’

Image: DDP Law [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Academics blame corruption and weak leadership for South Africa’s spate of violence against university staff

A recent rise in violent attacks on academic staff constitutes a crisis, South African academics have said. 

A virtual discussion hosted by the Academy of Science of South Africa on 27 January followed what the University of Fort Hare described as an “assassination attempt” earlier that month on vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu, which claimed the life of Mboneli Vesele, his head of security. It is believed Buhlungu was targeted for supporting an investigation into alleged corruption at the institution.

This was the latest in a number of such attacks against university staff, the meeting heard. In 2018, Gregory Kamwendo, arts faculty dean at the University of Zululand, was murdered, allegedly by an assassin hired by a colleague, after Kamwendo reportedly had uncovered a fraudulent PhD scheme at the institution.

In the discussion, Themba Mosia, vice-principal of the University of Pretoria and former chair of the Council on Higher Education, said he had hired security after receiving threats against his life more than once. 

Chairing the discussion, academy president Jonathan Jansen said the levels of violence currently seen against university staff were unprecedented, but that they also reflected longstanding challenges facing South Africa as a country.

“This is unbelievable in the context of higher education, yet common in our country,” Jansen said.

Growing problem

Mosia said the increase in violence and criminal threats could be due to a scramble for the large resources that universities hold, such as infrastructure budgets.

“Because the economy has been declining for a while and as a country we are battling with corruption, people have become very sophisticated in the manner in which they can swindle funds,” he said.

Mosia shared a gloomy view of the future. Higher education, he said, is a reflection of the state, which has failed itself and its citizens. “Unless the government urgently takes serious action, we will see more and more of these occurrences.”

He added that he viewed a post in industry as safer, currently, than being part of a university’s leadership, and he added that simply boosting security would not bring about change. “We need to get to the core of the problem.”

Lacking leadership

Nomalanga Mkhize, a historian based at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, said that the increasingly corporate way universities were run, with centralised executive powers, had fuelled greed and eroded the academic project. “Giving too much power to executive management and councils has led us to this,” she said.

She also dealt a harsh blow to vice-chancellors and other institutional leaders, insisting they had lost the essence of what it meant to be an academic leader. “The focus is no longer on creating great leaders, fostering academic projects and creating institutions that will offer value to societies,” she said, adding that some leaders seemed to prioritise social media stardom over academic leadership.

Mkhize said that more needed to be done to curb the spike in violent and aggressive culture, calling on vice-chancellors to “deal with these urgent matters of protecting staff”.