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Habib heckler harassed by security at a SOAS Alumni Book Club event

By Jacob Winter, BA Politics and International Relations

Discontent with SOAS Director Adam Habib has been present amongst the student body for almost as long as he has been in the position, with this vocal opposition being particularly highlighted during a meeting of the SOAS Alumni Book Club. 

On 4 November the SOAS Alumni Book Club, a discussion group aiming to recreate the feeling of discussion within an academic environment for alumni, held a talk with historian and writer Ms. Jung Chang, who lectured at SOAS during the 1980s.

The talk was primarily about Chang’s books, ‘Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China’ and ‘Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China’, with Director Habib providing an introduction. During the Q&A section, a student (who wished to remain anonymous) attempted to ask a question about Chang’s decision to share a panel with Director Habib, bringing to light a series of criticisms of Habib’s record as a university administrator, in particular his role in the suppression of protest movements during his time as Chair of Wits University in South Africa. His question was cut short, and the student was dragged off the premises by security officers, as shown in a widely circulated video published by SOAS Justice for Workers and SOAS Solidarity. 

The protests the student referred to were the Fees Must Fall (FMF) protests across South Africa, particularly at Wits University in 2015 and 2016, during which Habib was Vice-Chancellor. The protests against rising student tuition were particularly militant, and drew large crowds, with students being accused of physically assaulting police officers while a cleaner died due to an asthma attack set off by a fire extinguisher used by the protesters. 

The police response was likewise militant, with police using rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas on protesting students. Accusations that police officers kidnapped leaders of the FMF movement were levied, with a member of the FMF logistics team, Arthur Muhamelwa, being abducted by police, stripped naked and left in Limpopo, over 200 miles away from Wits University. Muhamelwa accused South African police of torture. Habib was accused by the student at the book club of coordinating with police the suppression of these protests, particularly in using potentially lethal force.

The student made this statement in regard to his question and later treatment by security: 

‘It seemed relevant to me that one of the most famous anti-totalitarian authors in the world had chosen to share a stage with a man complicit in a police-state repression of demonstrators.’ 

When asked for a statement about his treatment by security, he said that ‘Fundamentally the issue is not some casualised, outsourced individual security guard being trigger happy because otherwise, he’ll lose his job, but a board of directors who have been slowly inculcating an atmosphere of automatic control of dissent.’ 

SOAS Administration also made a statement regarding the event: ‘SOAS students have a responsibility to follow the rules and regulations of SOAS whilst studying here. We want to remind students that this includes displaying appropriate conduct at SOAS events with external speakers and guests. We may intervene if behaviour is deemed a breach of the SOAS Student Code of Conduct.’

The full transcript of the question, as well as what the student intended to ask before he was detained and removed from the premises by security, is as follows: ‘I’d like to ask Ms Chang, who has spent her entire life in the fight against totalitarianism, why she is sharing a stage with a character who led one of the most violent suppressions of a protest movement in recent history. Adam Habib as chair of Wits University coordinated with the police in the use of potentially lethal force and created a permanent private militia armed with batons on campus to prevent students from gathering in groups of friends, let alone assemblies. The chairman of the Student Union, Shaeera Kalla, was shot 13 times with rubber-coated steel bullets as she turned her back to the police, the elderly university chaplain was hit in the mouth by a rubber-coated steel bullet by a range of about a foot, and student Arthur Muhamelwa was abducted, tortured by police, and abandoned without medical attention in the deep Veldt. Three police officers have been charged with murder: it is clear from multiple videos where police encourage each other to shoot protestors at point-blank range that the number is a small miracle. Having been rescued from his political predicament in South Africa, Habib has responded to mild strike action at SOAS with outright false promises and a creeping spread of security throughout campus, with staff forced to picket outside the university campus. Considering that he has not repudiated his actions and seems likely to repeat them, does Ms Chang not wish to share a platform with people who are closer to her politics?’

Photo Caption: The student asking their question at the Alumni Event (Credit: @soasjusticeforworkers on Instagram)

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