Fed up: Students at the University of the Witwatersrand protest at fee increases and demand institutional change.
I began my week with an extraordinary request to my phone. As I made my way to work on Monday, between deep breaths and red robots, I typed the words ‘‘make me a channel of your peace’’ into my YouTube app, with the hopes of hearing a memorable childhood song. I was in luck.
There it was — a gift from the obscure parts of the internet, around the corner from videos of people mining blackheads.
There was no actual video, but a lime green backdrop and the song’s lyrics written in large white Comic Sans. I pressed play and allowed myself to sing. It cleansed my mood and opened the door to a silent and dispossessed prayer during which I asked for amandla and wisdom in surviving our country during this time when our historical traumas have come for their annual visit.
I’m not opposed to anything that is unfolding, but as someone who takes historical events to heart, I need to hold the hand of something powerful to endure it.
The thing I revere the most about the student protests is how little permission the students are asking for from the guardians of respectability — the state, their institutions and the elites who want decolonised education in theory but who are weighed down by all the things they are going to have to give up in a future world where niggers will be people, such as “the way things are”.
For those who are only able to see the protestors as vandals, one can only attribute their limited imagination to the shock and confusion of witnessing a brave and bold 21st-century blackness standing up for the deprived with not a “sorry” in sight. It’s a confusion sponsored by the fact that in our country, violence is defined as anything that disrupts the status quo and is strangely not attributed to the robocops parading campuses. Or their handlers.
It is the institutions that have now become resistance dinosaurs against change, change that is inevitable, change that is happening with or without their permission.
An interesting iteration of this change came in the form of a song last week — the ultimate weapon of peace. I first heard it on Instagram, sung by students outside Hillbrow police station. They were singing for the release of their comrades who are being so uncreatively jailed for protesting, in an uncanny resemblance to our pathetic history.
What is being called the decolonised national anthem is a new version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika that was rewritten by a student, Koketso Poho, and has been sung by students around the country to encapsulate and legitimise their causes.
What some might view as a vandalised national anthem is actually a prayer, appealing to God to give them power to overcome the devils of the now.
Locked between a precolonial call-and-response war cry and a postcolonial Christian hymnal, the new anthem is the miracle of this tragic failure to listen by those who should know better. It’s footballer Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the singing of the American national anthem. It’s Father Graham Pugin standing firm in front of a deathmobile.
I am not surprised at how little resistance there has been to it. Maybe it’s because it is simply so beautiful that it frightens our fears and we aren’t very good at operating without those. So let’s just keep quiet and maybe it will go away.
Beyond its piercing sonic overture, its beauty is in the fact that a very public institution has been peacefully seized and divested of its authority and pruned into a modern spiritual, and there’s nothing anybody can do about that.
You can’t shoot a song. Somewhere in the power of that fact lies the thing that the students and all their allies must hold on to. The thing that makes one feel alive when listening to its blood-warming lyrics and transcendent melody. The beauty of this collective moment in spite of the ugliness of it all.
The power of song in this moment is that they aren’t merely singing the songs that came before them, they have taken a historical sample and added their 21st-century struggles to it, without naming or parading them but relying on a familiar feeling to carry them all.
The song is the rope that ties this movement to all the movements that came before it. It is a bell that signals that support from history and a bell that the Economic Freedom Fighter’s Julius Malema calls “an appointment with the future’’.