As this newspaper has said on its front page, and as a new book (excerpted in this week’s paper) is titled, South Africa is a “protest nation”. The tradition goes so far back into our history of the struggle for liberation from apartheid oppression that it seems to have become the default option for any movement trying to achieve any objective at all.
The idea of service-delivery protests has become a cliché – we are so used to them, taking place all over the country, in big towns and half-forgotten villages, that they barely feature in the national news media nowadays. Attention is seldom paid to the way state structures such as municipalities and the police react to protests, which is why it is valuable to have the research and analysis done by the scholars who contributed to Jane Duncan’s book.
State bodies’ reaction to protest varies, and has become a complicated network of rules and procedures that, while appearing to validate South Africans’ right to protest, also contain and constrain it – and often, in the confusion, trample those rights.
There is also an awareness, particularly since the violent protests in Tshwane over mayoral candidates as well as the burning of schools in Vuwani earlier this year, that some of what look at first like delivery protests can be a sign of factional power battles in which hired hands are fomenting trouble for the sake of conniving elites.
The student protests in favour of lower fees that reached a peak this time last year have reached another peak recently. As we also report this week, great damage to property has been done, and violence has erupted as university managements bring in private security to block the attempts of what they see as a minority of students trying to bring institutions to a halt.
In that respect, these managements may be correct – that a small, self-styled revolutionary group within the #FeesMustFall movement is responsible for the latest disruptions, and that their actions do not resonate with the broader alliance that grew in the lead-up to last year’s Union Buildings protest and developed further in the months that followed. It brought together a wider range of students to protest over a wider range of issues than had hitherto been the case, and perhaps that was part of the reason it declined, dissipated its energy to a large degree and left a space open for hooliganism to take the place of genuine protest.
The #FeesMustFall movement does seem to have fractured internally, with its reins of leadership seized by people willing to use the most extreme methods. The problems at the core of the #FeesMustFall movement may still be burning issues, but they are not to be dealt with by burning libraries and the like, let alone intimidating other students to stay away from varsities or attempting to make institutions of learning “ungovernable”.
Apart from the fact that such actions alienate so many students who might otherwise support the cause, the reaction to this kind of action is simply more violence – violence from private security companies, in particular. We publish a story this week of our own journalists being violently attacked by private security guards at the scene of a protest, despite the fact that the media were clearly in a separate group and had made their status as observers clear.
The media were not even caught in the crossfire in this case – they were bluntly treated as the enemy by security officers apparently eager to visit violence upon whoever came within range. And if journalists are treated like that, how much worse might it be for students?
Images of students being dragged away by police in Grahamstown, to mention just one other incident, were seen all over the country this week, and they did not encourage public support for this kind of heavy-handed repressive action. It is more than likely to shift public opinion in favour of the students and away from the university managements, however hard they may be trying to solve the funding problem. It seems most likely, though, that they are failing to solve this very problem, hence the upsurge of renewed student protest, but by bringing out the big stick they will inevitably make it worse.
Why do South Africans slide into violence so easily? Yes, we have a long history of violence, from colonial conquest and tribal war to the oppression by the police of anti-apartheid protest – it’s as though it is now inbred. But we were supposed to get over that, weren’t we? Democracy was supposed to bring an end to such violence.
If we have come to believe that protest, and especially violent protest, is the only way to bring the authorities’ attention to the plight of students or any other group, what does it say about the participatory democracy we were supposed to be building?