A liberation reimagined takes root
‘Comrades, in 2017, we propose that there will be no registration fees,” a student says to a group of parents and workers’ representatives in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. It’s the first weekend of December and #FeesMustFall protesters are planning for next year.
In 2016, there was much South Africans didn’t expect. We didn’t know the extent to which a wealthy family had possibly meddled in the Cabinet or that Britain and the United States would empower racists. But we did expect that there would be student protests.
When universities once again echoed with “Iyoh Solomon”, and the bullets and rocks flew, there was reaction. The violence, people muttered, look at the violence. The bloodied lip of a priest. The waste of shattered windows and broken buildings and the ineptitude of public order police.
Only Fort Hare to date has announced that it will not be increasing fees, but overall little has been achieved. Stellenbosch University and the University of the Witwatersrand have announced 8% fee increases in 2017 for students outside the “missing middle” and other universities might follow suit.
The violence, the lack of resolution and the fight for free education have been going on for some time.
The words of Bessie Head, the feminist, anti-apartheid activist and writer, aptly described in 1965 the mood that pervades South Africa today.
“There was this immense conflict, pressure, uncertainty and insecurity that I have lived with for so long — I have solved nothing. I am like everyone else, perplexed, bewildered and desperate,” Head wrote in an article shortly after she went into self-exile.
In her time, Head often wasn’t accepted by black or white people. White people were racist and black people were suspicious because she was coloured. Both groups mocked her for her mental illnesses.
But students today say they are careful to be politically correct when it comes to “ableism”. It’s part of their politics of “intersectionality”, and it’s one of the ways in which students have reinvented parts of the past in their fight for liberation today.
Their imagination of a future that is inclusive and accessible to everyone spurred that reinvention. It is a future that isn’t so different from what many socialist anti-apartheid activists wanted.
Black women during apartheid may not have used the word intersectionality to describe their struggle for their liberation alongside the economic and political liberation of all black South Africans. But they knew that the will to fight for women was less than that for broader liberation.
In 2016, we pay less attention to those women than they deserve, because our history has been told in a way that matches the structure of our society — it favours men. A poem, Aluta Continua, written in 1992 by Roshila Nair, which students have quoted, evokes what some activists experienced.
“Let’s say it out loud/ about the other day/ how we were talking about that Comrade X/ who went home/ and gave his wife/ a blue eye/ after we’d all clapped/ an hour before/ for the liberation/ speech he gave/ with such conviction”
The students have tried to reinvent and extend black feminism. Intersectionality includes the queer women who bared their bodies in protest against police brutality at Wits, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and women who have led anti-rape protests such as #RUReferenceList.
But many male students haven’t lived up to their imagination of including them as protesters.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was about forgiving apartheid perpetrators to forge unity. The rainbow project failed but students at the University of Cape Town have reinvented what existed. They demanded a TRC after Shackville, built by students to disrupt university elitism, was destroyed. It was the same protest where students lost public support because they burned artworks.
The aftermath of that protest led to student expulsions. The remaining students are asking for justice through a TRC that won’t expect forgiveness but will sanction those who acted unjustly. It is the reimagination of a TRC that did little to help the oppressed.
In post-TRC South Africa, there were calls for transformation. But the students have seen transformation fail and reinvented it into a process of decolonisation. A student was mocked for saying “science must fall” — she was an easy target for discrediting the idea of decolonisation.
But decolonisation can be powerful if the students work with society to define what it means, and how it can produce change for the future they imagine is pro-black and pro-poor.
It is impractical to talk about current protests without mentioning state security. The presence of police has increased at universities since Shackville in February. At the gathering where plans for 2017 were discussed, a policeman filmed everything with a handheld camera.
The crackdown from state security on protesters has provoked concerns, particularly because the students have been accused of agitating for “regime change”, in State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s words.
But laws exist to protect protesters. What hasn’t been resolved is how to enforce their implementation. The students imagine a police force in the future that serves the people rather than the state. A police unchained from authority as it unites with workers.
The students have imagination in how they fight back. They have used mattresses from residences to block rubber bullets and mirrors to “blind the enemy” at the Vaal University of Technology. We should imagine how such creativity could excel in the classroom and in society if it wasn’t spent fighting old problems.
Still, the students have struggled to make their demands for their imagined futures a reality. They have employed humiliation as a tactic to undermine the power of the university.
There’s no doubt that university managements have failed to respond admirably to the protests. The use of ill-trained private security is proof of it. That police are on campus — during apartheid they invaded but didn’t occupy — shows that alarming decisions have been made.
But humiliation is not a constructive tactic, and neither is violence. The students know it; they have discussed how violence achieves little. But they burn with anger and the burning has led to an imagining that from destruction they will build better institutions. What the imagination lacks is that this is dangerous.
The humiliation has been personal. Now many are afraid to truly say what they mean. It’s become important to be on the “right side” of history, and that means being a comrade of the struggle and saying all the “right things”. Anything sounding remotely against the grain of radical left politics is a betrayal.
We have yet to define what a radical left is in our time. That, too, needs to undergo a process of reinvention.
There is a sense of either/or. You either support the students or you’re against them. There’s no middle ground to offer constructive criticism while supporting free education. But imagine there was.
The fundamental flaw is that student movements lack the balance to introspect on what has not worked. In India, student protesters in the 1970s were similar in protest to South African students today. In Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which details some of their protests, an older character described how he survived misfortune.
“You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” the character says.
This year felt apocalyptic at times. It happened when a priest was shot in the face, when Donald Trump was elected United States president, when Brexit became a reality and when some in the ANC national executive committee spoke out about President Jacob Zuma quitting.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was inspired by poet WB Yeats’s The Second Coming. The book reinvented the Irishman’s harrowing imagination of the apocalypse in a Nigerian context. The title takes its name from a line of the poem, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.
It isn’t the apocalypse, but the novel and the poem perfectly encompass the hysteria of 2016. The centre is certainly faltering and, in the coming years, we might, like Achebe’s protagonist Okonkwo, find ourselves experiencing a society we are increasingly unfamiliar with.
What we must remember is that there are elements of the old even in what seems like the new. Deep down we know parts of what to expect, because history has told us so. That is the kindness of the past.
The processes of reinvention and reimagination are harder to predict. But it is necessary if we are to adapt to changing times.
The students are not protesting in isolation, they are part of the strands of our social web.
Educationalist and activist Leigh-Ann Naidoo observed in her Ruth First memorial lecture that students and workers have opened a portal to a potentially better future. When they meet and occupy and do their work, it should include time to address the divisions and doubt in their movements.
As the world and our country becomes more strange, we too should reinvent and reimagine what we can. If not, the portal will close and the work to pry it open will be much harder, because those who repress others will have learnt from history, too.