Barbarians at UJ's gate are just victims
Recent tragic events at the gates of the University of Johannesburg reveal the reality that our country has now properly entered the era of the barbarism of free-market ideology.
Commentators and experts view the crisis from a narrow technicist perspective, which focuses on bad planning on the part of the university, the prospective students or the government. The solutions bandied about have been either the provision of more “career guidance” or, as Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has suggested, a centralised registration system. Left out of the analytical equation are the underlying factors that conspired to produce a dead body at the doorstep of an institution of higher learning.
A picture that best captures the ominous times we live in is the desperation of the student flying over the spiked palisade fence, with the threat of being impaled at a slight wrong turn. According to the media, it was at this moment that the crowd surged forward and a murderous stampede ensued. The jump concentrated the minds of those who had been waiting, some overnight, in long queues. It was a matter of now or never.
This single jump revealed more poignantly our national psyche: the belief in getting ahead even if you literally have to trample over dying bodies. The myth of ubuntu is dead and buried. We are dealing not with people with a sense of civic pride or citizen’s entitlement, which in a normal society calls for dignified service for all. Here we see the post-1994 black South African as an alienated individual proper, a mere “object amongst objects”, to borrow from philosopher Frantz Fanon.
It is important to trace the foundation of this ideology of “everyone for themselves” to its proper source to avoid blaming the victims. The desperados at the gates are merely victims, not the source of the crisis.
The events at UJ give us a glimpse of contemporary hegemonic ideology. South Africans find themselves assaulted by two brutal forces at once, which reinforce each other to produce this deadly ideology. On the one hand, the elected representatives of the people and public servants have reduced the national purse to a self-enrichment scheme, mostly legally with high salaries and perks, but increasingly also illegally.
It is no longer an exaggeration to say that, if you want to make it and you are black, there is an easy two-step process to follow. First, become a politician, preferably in the ANC, as it is the ruling party and has access to state resources and, specifically, tenders. Second, promise people a better life for all and, once in office, proceed to enrich yourself, your friends and your family, while throwing reconstruction and development programme crumbs at the people. They will be eternally grateful.
Didn’t Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe perhaps reveal more than he meant to when toasting the 100-year history of the ANC? Who can forget his truthful words: “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne and, of course, they do so on your behalf through their lips.”
Since 1994, our leaders have substituted themselves for the masses. When they say “a better life for all”, they mean themselves. Here we see the foundation of this ideology of naked individualism.
The second assault comes from the trope of motivational speakers who emphasise the ability to attain individual success if you are determined enough. Every evening, black radio is saturated with these merchants of success if you work hard enough. There has been an explosion of this bogus profession in the past few years, led by Oprah Winfrey and copied in South Africa by all sorts of people. This motivational nonsense chimes well with the new evangelical churches that preach: “Pay me and God will bless you with riches.”
Things have become so bad that black people are now given to saying that, if you criticise the gluttonous behaviour of our public representatives, you are jealous because you haven’t succeeded. Often this ideology of success by individual effort makes excuses for corruption and, at the same time, conceals the actual workings of power and our racist past. All these factors produce a kind of fatalism that leads to the culture of cannibalism we see today.
This hegemonic ideology conceals how structural factors determine outcome. All of a sudden, the 98% pass rate for private schools, accompanied by a whopping 80% university entrance pass rate, as compared to the 24% university entrance pass rate in the public-school system is attributable to hard work, not differential opportunities. According to this thinking, black students do badly because they are lazy, not because they have wasted 12 years in schools were teachers are badly educated, badly paid, badly managed and the school environment is not conducive to learning, all compounded by family poverty.
The irony is that the victims of structural exclusion are not immune from this ideology of everyone for themselves. We are dealing with a society so atomised that it can no longer imagine collective solutions for all. Gone is the mantra “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Now, we are barbarians, ready to feed on the blood of whoever stands in our way.
I was at UJ on the afternoon of the tragic event and a returning student explained things a little better. He said we should fight collectively for access by all. He was not just speaking about those who were at UJ but also about the hundreds of thousands who will be languishing at home or on the one-way road to nowhere in Nzimande’s further education and training colleges.
The student explained how the pathology of naked individualism was demonstrated in the behaviour of those in the shockingly long queue. “No one speaks to each other because we see each other as competitors,” he said. “If we choose to fight for what is our right, will we have followers or will they go back to the queue?” There was silence as we contemplated the question, then he burst out laughing and answered it himself: “They will go back to the queue.” And, we could add, trample each other like animals.
A new person is desperately called for in our country if this cannibalism is to be arrested before it bursts into a war of all against all. This person has to be built around the idea of a big “no!” to injustice and being reduced to an object by official ideology. A spirit of public accountability and a citizen’s entitlement to quality, timely service for all has to be recreated. This new spirit can be built only in a collective new struggle for a society based on a different value system.
The enemies of this new spirit are essentially politicians, senior public servants and their missionaries—the motivational speakers and God freaks preaching the donation of money for God’s help.
Our country has the means to take care of everybody. No one should die while trying to get access to public goods. This is not too much to ask.
Andile Mngxitama supports the September National Imbizo campaign for politicians and public servants to be compelled by law to use public services