The South African Sociological Association (SASA) wishes to add its voice to the chorus of condemnation of the recent spate of repression of scholars witnessed around the world. We express our solidarity with those students and academics who have been victims of imprisonment and violence or otherwise face prosecution, dismissal, and harassment.
In 2015, academics in various countries have received death threats and been assassinated while studying social movements, most notably in Columbia. Since early 2016, three chilling examples bear witness to the escalation of academic repression. More than 1200 scholars in Turkey signed a petition for “Academics for Peace” which opposed the government’s decision to pursue a war against the Kurds. For this act only, they were targeted, in many instances investigated, and others were arrested. In India, at Hyderabad University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, non-violent protests against the death penalty led to a major government clampdown. In Egypt, a young scholar named Giulio Regeni disappeared and was found tortured and killed while conducting doctoral research into independent trade unions in the city of Cairo. This comes in the context of the disappearance, torture and murder of hundreds of Egyptian students and academics since the military coup of 2013.
In Ethiopia, in November 2015 a demonstration by pupils and high school students against land grabbing in solidarity with farmers was brutally repressed with live ammunition triggering nationwide protests. Since then, food boycotts, sit-ins and silent marches have been held throughout the country including in universities such as Addis Ababa University, Haramaya University and Ambo University against the repression and for broader political rights. These peaceful protests have been met with the use of live ammunition, summary executions, enforced disappearances, rape and mass arrests leaving over 400 dead, thousands injured and tens of thousands behind bars including students, teachers and academics.
As we join fellow sociologists and scholars worldwide in unequivocally denouncing the stifling of dissent and free expression in academia, SASA repudiates not only these overt and vile attacks on critical thinking, we equally rise up in outrage over the systemic exclusion and continued discrimination against vulnerable groups in higher education.
We subscribe to the view that academic freedoms are a key indicator of the overall status of political freedom and democracy. No government, however, democratic or otherwise, should impose restrictions on the autonomy of scholars as innovative thought can only flourish when ideas can be exchanged and debated free from government repression.
In South Africa, following unprecedented and peaceful student occupations of universities across the country in late 2015, hundreds of students and university workers and academic staff were arrested by the police. The freedom of movement and the right to assemble has since been trampled upon by new management policies and private security which both prevent the legitimate right to protest. Our history in South Africa has taught us all too well the imperative of academic freedom in the context of authoritarian rule. The politically motivated suppression of dissenting opinion and academic expression under apartheid necessitated a form of direct institutional collusion and repression on the part of universities to prevent academics from stepping out of line and we feel this increasingly creeping into our campuses after 22 years of democracy in South Africa. But our history also taught us that intellectual freedom without social accountability can render us mere islands of privilege, to echo Mahmood Mamdani’s words.
Therefore, in reiterating our solidarity and support to the struggles of students and teachers under attack in Turkey, India and elsewhere, as sociologists and social scientists we endorse the global call to continue working and mobilising our skills towards producing a better understanding of our world in order to ultimately make it more just and equal.