Meet tyranny with rage, not violence

The violence of language turns off the humanity of those who guard the gates of academia. (Nardus Engelbrecht, Gallo)

The violence of language turns off the humanity of those who guard the gates of academia. (Nardus Engelbrecht, Gallo)

Last week, during a radio talk show about the rising tide of student protests in higher education institutions, a caller named Bongani dared me to name one thing that has been attained without violence in this country. Bongani said he was a student.

The protests that have swept across the higher education sector this year have put several important issues on the national agenda. These include student finance, institutional culture, symbols and statues, language, class, race and gender.

Yet Bongani’s missile seemed deliberately aimed at prioritising and forcing the issue of violence.
What hit me between the eyes was not so much the validity of his implied glorification of violence, which we will and must debate. It was the elegance with which his views, which are based on a deeply embraced ideology, were unfurled and effortlessly sung, rather like a well-rehearsed Gregorian chant.

Bongani was contesting my strong condemnation of all forms of violence on campuses – which I would like to reiterate unequivocally.

If the authenticity of Bongani’s somewhat exaggerated views regarding the benefits of violence could be doubted, the swirling rage in which his words were soaked was unmistakable.

Bongani’s interjection interrupted what might have been yet another sterile conversation about student protests obsessed with who is more rational and more logical than who. The burgeoning set of binaries together with a growing register of insults seem intended to silence and to dismiss.

Yet, as Peter Gabriel sang of Steve Biko, “You can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a fire”. And yes, Biko is back, baby. The so-called born-frees drink a potent cocktail of Biko mixed with Frantz Fanon.

Care must be taken that we do not privilege the violence discourse over and above the substantive issues the students have put on the table. One of the approaches preferred so far seems to be that of isolating the alleged “student villains” for public ridicule and discipline instead of dialogue and rehabilitation.

The silencing intent of the institutional public performances of power is clear. I fear that we may be defaulting back into denial and wilful ignorance. But Bongani wants us to discuss violence.

Let us concede upfront: colonial South Africa and apartheid South Africa were built on the foundations of conquest, dispossession and racial discrimination. These violent foundations continue to cast a dark shadow over democratic South Africa.

The cases of Marikana, Emmanuel Sithole, Reeva Steenkamp, Andries Tatane, Anene Booysen, Mido Macia and many others demonstrate amply how deeply engraved the script of violence is on the psyche of state and society alike. Violence seems to be the default national position.

Though Bongani is wrong to extol the alleged virtues of violence, he may be correct to call us, unintentionally, to a deeper reflection on violence.

Long before the council chambers are invaded by angry students, before the scuffles and the injuries, there had already been violence.

Consider the violence of financial exclusion and the violence of poverty-induced hunger that many students suffer in campus residences across the land. Add to this the Guantanamo Bay-type initiation rites rumoured to be (still) in force in several student residences at many universities. The blinking websites of both our universities and our government departments seem to conspire in an unspoken mockery of the poor black student who can admire but not touch, enter but not succeed.

The violence of language begins with the offensive unspoken racism that lurks behind counters and hangs heavily in the air inside insanely overcrowded English-medium lecture halls. It includes the thinly veiled but life-changing racism that determines what students may or may not study depending on what is available in what language.

The same racism turns the humanity of front-line officials on and off, depending on the shape of the nose of the client in front of them. Like racism, xenophobia, homophobia, ethnophobia and tribalism have no place in a university campus.

In some universities, many of these concerns have coalesced into anger directed not only at the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction but also at Afrikaans itself. To the extent that the use of Afrikaans (or any other language for that matter) as medium of instruction may be employed as a tool of exclusion, those exclusionary practices must be unmasked and vehemently opposed.

But the summary blaming of everything that is wrong in some institutions of higher learning solely on Afrikaans feels far too lazy and too superficial an analysis.

The linguistic space needs to be opened up for more languages, not closed down.

The long-term challenge and task that beckons our government and us is the development of African languages into mediums of instruction. No African language may be ready to become a medium of instruction today, but this is no permanent disability. Just because African languages are not mediums of instruction does not mean they cannot, in the meantime, be used on their own, for strategic communication, for selected dissertation citations, on websites and for graduation and other key university speeches.

Many African languages are ready to be made mandatory subjects at high school and undergraduate levels. What and who are we waiting for?

English as the only medium of instruction will give us a few quick feel-good gains, but many of these may not be sustainable in the long term. We must be one of the few countries in the world whose lawyers, medical doctors and social workers insist that their clients must speak their languages – or else. It is shocking that a student in South Africa can complete both high school and an undergraduate degree without ever having to read an African language or writer.

The more substantive allegation of affected students seems to be this: at some universities – Afrikaans medium, dual medium and English medium alike – the best of what those universities have is offered only in a monoculture.

The cry of the students seems therefore to be for a dispensation that will make the very best of every aspect of every South African university available to each and every student. Even where and when English is the only medium of instruction, many students have reported feeling as if they are being asked to take off everything they are and everything they know before entering the holy gates of the university.

The dismal vital statistics of the South African higher education sector reek with the smell of violence behind them. Black student participation, graduation and success rates are low. Black professors, especially of the female kind, are a rarity of rarities.

And on it goes this tale of unmitigated national shame. Twenty-one years after democracy, neither universities nor government should be issuing the hollow excuse about the absence of a critical mass of black academics. It has always been and remains the job of all our universities and of all of government to produce the next generation of academics. If we have failed spectacularly on this matter thus far, now is the time for a higher education Operation Phakisa.

In response to Bongani’s praise-song for violence, I said on radio that South Africa as we know it today would not have been imaginable, let alone possible, without the choice for peace over the path of violence. Yet even before I finished my response to Bongani, a response whose basic truth I still firmly believe, I could feel my words ricochet and boomerang awkwardly back to the sender.

Behind the words of Bongani, I could hear those of Fanon, who said “you do not turn any society upside-down … if you are not decided from the very beginning … [to be] ready for violence at all times”.

An important observation of Fanon is that societies founded on violence are likely to respond to efforts to change them with every kind of weapon of violence in their arsenal. Accordingly, Fanon warns that those who work for change – both before and after liberation – should expect violence but they should not allow either the violence or the threat of it to stop them.

I sincerely hope we have not reached the levels of despair that make it necessary for us to need to prove to anyone, including ourselves, that peace works better than violence.

We did not defeat apartheid at such great cost only so that we could stand aside and watch as the best higher education system on the continent is destroyed by the violence of structural racism and the dangerous seduction of physical violence.

Universities are instruments for the advancement of science and the development of society. We should refuse to hand the sector over to a reign of terror and intimidation, whether it comes from the top or from below.

Tinyiko Maluleke teaches at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are his own.

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