New voices rattle Rhodes

Students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown joined the countrywide protests against fee increases last year. (Eugene Coetzee/The Herald/Gallo Images)

Students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown joined the countrywide protests against fee increases last year. (Eugene Coetzee/The Herald/Gallo Images)

It’s Sunday night in Grahamstown. After an extraordinary week of struggle, here and across the country, students are gathered for a vigil.

This is a town born in the blood and terror of a colonial crime. That crime structures the present.
There are perpetually emerald fields on one side of town and shacks on the other. Colonel Graham’s crime doesn’t sit in the dark quiet of the earth, like an invisible foundation holding up the present. It festers in the present. It rots and runs, slow and viscous, through everyday sociality. To live here one must wade through its heaviness day after day.

The corner of the town strung between the university, the shopping mall and the schools for the children of the rich, is shrinking into itself. But, richer than ever, and patrolled by men with guns, it sustains a manicured but jittery power.

Outside this bubble the old contempt is still being written into the surface of the earth. The RDP houses, built on the same side of town as the shacks, are tiny, cold, damp and frequently broken. People live and children play amid piles of rubbish. It rots in the sun and blows in the wind. Sitting in a shack, burning plastic to keep warm, it’s the surreal hulk of a ruined school that breaks the sky. Here it’s rare for a young person to have a job.

Even the City Hall, the seat of political power, is sinking into decay. It’s the police station up on the hill that is all sharp angles, shiny and new. But people do not feel safe. In recent months the bodies of young women have been appearing in the interstices of the town. Rumours about mutilation of the bodies have exceeded the available facts. Here, the part of Roberto Bolaño’s giant novel set in the wastelands of the Mexican border can start to feel like a grim and haunting vision of one possible future.

Last year the university was assured of its excellence and virtue. Ideas brought into this place on the back of the colonial crime, ideas developed with the precise purpose of separating the civilised and the barbarous, were taught with imperious confidence. But, beginning in March this year, the power to teach, without contestation, the grammar of oppression as if it were in fact the grammar of universal freedom has been broken.

The power of the professoriate is now subject to open critique by a brave and brilliant generation of black students. The attempts to restore the old order, to restore the monopoly – an acutely raced monopoly – that had been exercised over the theorisation and implementation of “transformation” for 20 years, are evidently brittle and wholly unpersuasive. Something has shifted.

Just after midnight on Sunday last week, the barricades went up. Tyres were burnt. The grammar of struggle, of popular struggle in the cities of the South, from Durban to Port-au-Prince and La Paz, had entered the university and the broader elite zone. On Monday a connection was made to the struggle of working-class students at the further education and training college down the road. Inevitably, the grammar of repression – in this case, the water cannon and the stun grenade – followed that afternoon. After the attack a young woman, a brilliant young woman, a leader in the new student politics, sat on the main barricade in the gloaming, her whole body shaking in shock. In the days to come, what has been done to the poor, largely without objection from the middle classes, day after day and year after year, would repeatedly be done in the zones of privilege and to the children of the middle classes around the country.

The practice and language of struggle moved with the sometimes astonishing rapidity that becomes possible in periods of intense collective action. The day after the police attack Blade Nzimande and Jacob Zuma were, resolutely, in the sights of this struggle. A struggle that, while part of a national and international moment, had begun by taking the university and its racism as its primary target was now at odds with the ruling party. It was implicitly contesting the party’s claim to be the rightful custodian of the national struggle.

On Wednesday, as sympathetic academics were at the City Hall working to secure the right of students to march out of the campus without the risk of assault at the hands of the police, a protest organised by the local taxi association arrived. Some of the taxis that blocked the road outside the City Hall were adorned with signs declaring “They Must Go” and “Burn Them”. For weeks a rumour had been circulating that the person responsible for the murders in the town was “an Arab”, a “man with a beard”. This had turned into a general hostility towards Muslim traders from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia in particular. Attempts were made to ally this hostility to a claim that these traders had “come to destroy black business”.

Everybody knows, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, that the deal is rotten. Everybody knows that we can’t carry on as we are. Everybody knows that Zuma can’t take us out of the morass into which we are sinking. But what comes next is yet to be determined.

As the student march finally got under way on one side of town, the attacks on migrant Muslim traders began on the other side. Two very different visions of the future, both internally complex, contradictory and contested, were playing themselves out within a five-minute walk from each other.

On the one side, local elites were exploiting real fears and a real crisis to advance a politics of authoritarianism and ruthless chauvinism in which their own material interests could be conflated with those of the nation.

On the other side, some of the brightest and best of our young people were at the centre of a project organised and sustained (though not without strain at some points) around a set of emancipatory ideas.

Now it’s Sunday night. People are gathered on the street, the street that became the primary site of insurgent student assembly over the last week. Four women, two students, an academic and a priest speak on

the meaning of what has happened. This is, the first speaker reminds us, a vigil – a term with Latin roots denoting purposeful wakefulness. The ancient, it seems, is entwined with the hip. There is a prayer. Thanks are offered for the grace that has seen everyone make it through these extraordinary times.

The first intellectual mentioned is Frantz Fanon, who wrote his first book as a student in Lyon in 1952. He wanted, he wrote, “to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help build it together”. Racism denied him the possibility of being a person among people. In Grahamstown today, that book retains extraordinary power. Students sometimes weep when discussing it for the first time.

The people gathered on the street are enjoined to fidelity to the opening, the new sense of self and possibility, the new form of power, that has been manifest all week.

Solidarity is expressed with student struggles across the country, with the struggles of university workers and with the people driven from their shops and homes on the other side of town.

A young man reads a poem. He has chosen Derek Walcott’s The Light of the World. The poem is about many things. It begins with a beautiful young woman humming rebel music: “songs of a sadness as real as the smell of rain on dry earth”. At dusk candles are lit. The university choir begin their singing with the mournful power of Senzeni Na? After the official programme concludes, the students sing, once again, for Solomon Mahlangu, hanged, we must remember, at the age of 22.

The figure of the student in the occupation, on the barricade and in the street has taken its place, alongside that of the miner on strike and the person, often a woman, rebuilding her shack, again and again, on an urban land occupation, as an image of contemporary militancy. New forces are with us. New voices have taken their place in the nation. New ideas are with us.

Young people have taken their place in the world and set about the work, the insurgent work, of building it. Young women are at the heart of this moment. New possibilities are opening, new possibilities forged in struggle by courageous young people, new possibilities that, like the songs of sadness, are as real as the promise that comes with the smell of rain on dry earth.

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