Barbarism, burnings and Beckett 2

Protesting students at the University of Free State clash with supporters of the university's rugby team on the field. (Conrad Bornman, Gallo)

Protesting students at the University of Free State clash with supporters of the university's rugby team on the field. (Conrad Bornman, Gallo)

Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the second in a series of three articles in an attempt to negotiate this minefield. They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.

Read: Barbarism, burnings and Beckett 1

The “rainbow nation” is a myth. It is not dead. It has never existed. The sooner we get over it and drop the term from our discourse, the less disappointed we will be about the increasing evidence to the contrary, and perhaps we’ll get on with building a truly inclusive nation.         

If ever we needed a metaphor to expose the myth of the “rainbow nation”, the recent Varsity Cup rugby match between the University of Free State (UFS) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) painfully obliged. 

Imagine for a moment that rugby represents contemporary South African society or our economy. Once a playground reserved for a white minority, rugby – through the Varsity Cup – now seeks to be inclusive, representative of the “rainbow nation” created in the image of the Mandela, Tutu and De Klerk trinity.

The players on both sides in Bloemfontein were probably all younger than the 27 years spent in jail by our country’s first “post-apartheid” president. All “born free”, but not all born equal.         

According to the official Varsity Cup website, the UFS team has a squad of 35, with 29 white players and 6 black players, while the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s squad attempts to pay homage to its name-giver by including 17 white and 10 black players. Even within the relatively privileged tertiary education sector, there are sharp differences with formerly white universities being significantly more resourced than others.         

Even though all the players may have been born after 1989, and while everyone now has access to rugby, it is young white players with the benefits of better schools, better training and coaching facilities, greater rugby networks and a longer rugby history and culture that are best able to participate and excel in the “rugby economy”.         

There are indeed black players, some of whom have made it on merit because of sheer talent (the individual examples of exceptionalism which often mask the structural restraints that limit broader participation and achievement), or by virtue of having had access to the country’s better rugby schools, or both. Other black players participate because of affirmative action regulations that require each match-day squad of 23 to include 7 players “of colour”, with at least 3 of these in the starting line-up (20% of 15).         

It is not surprising then that the (historically white) University of Free State “thumped” Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (a “merged” institution) 46-19 in “their most convincing win of the year” as one reporter put it. (Picture the irony … a mostly white squad of players “thumping” a more non-racial - rainbow - squad nicknamed Madibaz!)         

Let’s further indulge the rugby metaphor. As we now all know, the UFS win came after a 50-minute break during which the match was interrupted by protestors who sang and danced their way onto the field in support of outsourced workers, who are at the university, but not of it. Their student supporters draw the links between their own struggles on campus (feeling marginalised in a system and a culture that are alien to their life experiences) and those of the outsourced workers who are not full participants in, or beneficiaries of university employment, and are poorly paid to boot.         

These outsiders wanted to let the “rainbow nation” - the privileged insiders, the mainly white and some black participants in the rugby eco-system - know that they wanted to be “inside” too.         

The response of the insiders was to unleash violence on the outsiders. Hordes of white students (and parents and lecturers, apparently) descended onto the pitch, not content only with chasing away the protestors, but assaulting them physically, with verbal abuse further violating the dignity of the protestors.         

In his post-match interview, the Shimlas coach – Hendro Scholtz – opined “The main thing should stay the main thing and that is playing rugby and enjoying”. This goes to the very heart of the “rainbow nation” myth. For a few with the means to do so, the “main thing” is about “playing rugby and enjoying”. For most others in the country though, as represented by the protesting outsourced workers, the “main thing” is about daily survival, about making ends meet, with their children unlikely to attend a decent school, so that their chances of a university education - let alone a place in the rugby team - are virtually nil.         

This rugby metaphor speaks to the realities of our broader society, with the Marikana massacre being the ultimate expression of how the “rainbow nation” – at best,“multiracial” elite – deals with disruption to the status quo.         

There is a general middle-class abhorrence of violence, with many believing that the Marikana miners got what they deserved for carrying traditional weapons, and for – somehow - collectively being responsible for the deaths of two policemen and other miners in the days before the massacre. Yet, what of the violence done to the miners – human beings - who lived in conditions that even Cyril Ramaphosa described to the Farlam Commission as “appalling and inhumane”?         

From behind electric fences, beams and armed response fortresses, we pontificate about communities who take the law into their own hands and mete out their version of justice to criminals preying on locals. Yet, a reporter at the rugby match stated “With a lack of adequate security at the game, spectators took matters into their own hands and violence broke out”. What makes these - white - spectators any less “barbaric”, any more “civilised” than vigilantes acting against criminals?         

Still, some argue that the protestors forced their way into the stadium, and, in the process, physically assaulted people - including women - so that they got what they deserved. By this argument, our country should have been in flames long ago, and should constantly be in flames for the daily violence done against the majority of people through institutions, systems and structures on the one hand, and personal interactions on the other that treat them as less than human.       

While there is horror and outrage at T-shirts and graffiti that shout “fuck whites” or “kill all whites”, the physical attacks on black protestors by white youths, their parents and lecturers and the reported subsequent arming of white men on the UFS campus, shows not just intent, but actual capacity for doing harm to black people.         

It is telling that black workers and students at the University of Free State were arrested with various charges laid against them; yet, at the time of writing, no white person who assaulted workers and students at the rugby match has been arrested. How is that possible? Marikana miners too were arrested after the massacre by the police, and were charged with the deaths of their colleagues (the charges have since been dropped), while no-one has been found criminally responsible for the shooting of 34 miners! And then we would still like to believe that we have a rainbow nation, a constitutional democracy that works for all?         

When 20% of our population earns in excess of 65% of the national income, with more than 30% of our economically active people being unemployed, when 11 million plus people keep their heads above the poverty line only because of government grants, we do not stand a chance of being an inclusive, socially cohesive “rainbow nation”. Even the top 20%, those who have the best chance of “living the rainbow”, how many of us actually have sustained social interaction, genuine friendships that cross apartheid’s old divides within the middle-class, let alone across class boundaries? We have no right to bemoan the decline of our “rainbow nation” dream if we make so little effort to live it on a daily basis.         

Until we acknowledge and begin to address the fundamental inequities in our society, and the manifold ways in which the majority of our fellow citizens have been, and continue to be dehumanised and have their dignity violated in physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual and other forms, we will always be wondering about the increasing radicalisation of the language and protests of discontent, and we damn ourselves and our country by judging and responding to symptoms, rather than causes.

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