“One’s understanding of and feeling for a concept inevitably are shaped by the weighting of one’s experience,” says South African archivist Verne Harris.
There’s an inevitability about protest in South Africa – we expect it. Apartheid’s legacy of social engineering and structural inequality still affects young South Africans, yet anyone born after 1994 has no lived experience of apartheid itself.
Through the songs, literature and language youth activists use, however, they are bringing the memory of the past alive in a time when many would prefer to forget.
One of the endearing moments of the #FeesMustFall protests was seeing screenshots of conversations between parents who had experienced apartheid and their children, the student protesters, who hadn’t.
In one Whatsapp message that went viral, a mother instructs her son: “If you march again, take a wet bandana with you … your chances of getting teargassed are increasing and it’s horrible. Cover your mouth and nose as soon as you hear the whizzing noise [of the canisters before they explode]. Try to get to higher ground – teargas is heavy and sinks. (I really didn’t expect to have to be teaching my children this),” she adds.
Protest action is constitutionally enshrined in South Africa and is often treated as the cornerstone of democracy. For young South Africans who were born after 1994, protests have begun to play an important role – they help us bridge the gap between experience of the past and where we are now.
Step into a student protest at any of the #FeesMustFall demonstrations and the memory of apartheid is alive in the struggle songs sung. Iyoh Solomon (an ode to executed Umkhonto weSizwe soldier Solomon Mahlangu), Thina Sizwe (We the Nation), and Senzeni Na? (What Have We Done?) are just a few.
Many, largely white, naysayers have reacted to the student disruptions with colonial-style racism, referring to the protesters as barbaric. They wish to obscure the historical legacy of colonialism and apartheid as it affects black South Africans, who still remain disenfranchised by systemic inequality driven by racial capitalism and the suffocation of black identity.
Even today, there are Indians and coloured people who wilfully deny their blackness, having internalised the apartheid propaganda that they are better than black people.
The end of apartheid was the dawn of democracy in South Africa, but it wasn’t a revolution into a new order. Instead, the laws changed but racial capitalism was maintained, leaving too many young black youths to inherit a life of destitution.
The demand for free education is a reminder of the promises of the Freedom Charter the 1956 women’s march on the Union Buildings invoked, but the #RhodesMustFall movement is closer to the political theory of Africanism and black consciousness, and rejects the ANC’s nonracial rainbowism.
Even the Pan Africanist Congress has returned from the margins of history with the mobilisation of its student wing. So the students may invoke the ANC’s protest legacy, but they go deeper and broader too.
But, when it comes to struggle memory, it’s not all rosy nostalgia. When #RhodesMustFall protesters burned paintings to make a point about cultural decolonisation at the #Shackville student housing protest this week, they were criticised.
Reports indicate that portraits of anti-apartheid struggle heroes were burned and there was at least one painting by Keresemose Richard Baholo destroyed.
Burning art is a form of memory erasure in the sense that fragments of history are lost forever. Some may be colonialist in their representation, but we must remember what colonialism honoured in order to criticise it. Burning the memory of black activists also seems misaligned with #RhodesMustFall’s commitment to honouring black activists.
It’s misguided to suggest that the examples of protest actions in which past and present mesh are an exact reflection of the past. Although students carry placards with “1976” boldly written on them, Hector Pietersen’s limp body can never be cloned. Instead, the protests serve as a portal to the past, showing how forms of apartheid live on and how the goal is to dismantle it.
We are now in a time of history after apartheid. Protest feels inevitable. We should be mindful to protect South Africans’ right to protest, not only because of its importance to human rights and our flawed demo-cracy, but also for its ability to inspire memory rather than forgetfulness in a country where many still choose the latter.
Ra’eesa Pather is a journalist at the Mail & Guardian