South Africa’s politics of rage: what rises from the ashes?

> Judith February

There is something wrong with the way in which South Africans “do politics”. We are burning with rage.

Ahead of the recent local government elections, Tshwane burnt as Luthuli House sought to impose its own mayoral candidate, Thoko Didiza, despite community resistance. Homes, schools and tyres burnt.

In Vuwani, a demarcation dispute turned violent and we watched powerlessly as 23 schools burnt. Frustration and anger boiled over for days. In countless pieces of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard over and over again: “They only come when we start to burn things.”

“They” would refer to the media and the politicians, who have the power to effect change, yet are often unwilling or unable to listen. Recently, students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) burnt part of their law library in anger. The protests for free education and the abolition of annual fee increases had been running for 20 days. Throughout the campus shutdown, our Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, seemed conspicuously missing in action.

Much ink has been spilt about whether burning books and torching a library is justifiable in a democratic South Africa. Ironically, the sight of burning books takes one back to apartheid days, when houses were raided and books burnt by the security police because of their “subversive content”. We have come a long way; and then it seems we have not.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we “do politics” in South Africa if burning is seen as the only language in which one can be heard.  But equally, there must be something fundamentally wrong in a society where young people believe that destruction can pave the way to a meaningful and better future.

The nihilism displayed in burning a library reveals something about the careless way in which the preservation of knowledge is viewed.

It seems those students responsible inhabit a world in which there are no boundaries to their conduct, and in which democracy becomes a casualty of their collective rage and the urgency of the moment.

South African society is deeply unequal: its structures and systems designed to keep people out rather than create economic and social inclusivity. The post-1994 form of “empowerment” – as evidenced in black economic empowerment – has created a wealthy, often vacuous class of individuals while communities rarely benefitted. “Transformation”, once the buzzword, has now been replaced by that arcane, “catch-all” slogan: “decolonisation”.

Burning has thus become a potent symbol of the new hashtag movement, which demands easy, quick solutions to complex challenges. The rage has found expression by burning artwork at the University of Cape Town, torching Vice-Chancellor Max Price’s office, burning buses and now burning a law library at UKZN.

Some argue that this “new normal” is acceptable in a society marked by structural inequality. But what replaces burnt libraries, burnt schools and burnt books? What rises from the ashes; and what sort of society do we imagine then beyond the narrow “politics of now”? The answers seem neither clear nor obvious at present. For now, destruction appears necessary and sufficient. But if we are prepared to tear down the edifice to be heard, what will be left?

There are some hard truths about the challenges our universities face right now. Quietly, research units are closing down and in some institutions, those reaching a certain age have been encouraged to take early retirement. Many universities stand to lose experienced academics and to compromise research outputs because of this.

Last week, Max Price tried to contribute to this debate at the Fees Commission in Cape Town. Price has put forward some interesting proposals on the stratification of fees to ensure that those who are wealthier pay their fair share. A reasoned, logical view and one that might provide a real basis for negotiation and re-imagining access to higher education in South Africa.

No one really heard Price, however, as he was surrounded by protesting students outside the venue and escorted away under police guard. Students then “took over” the commission, which led to its work being suspended. The debate was thus hijacked by a small group of students who claim legitimacy to do so only because of their own anger. Yet that should not be the grounds to shut down debate; or provide a justification for violence and silencing those with opposing and legitimate viewpoints.

The time has come for the gatekeeping of debates to end, whether in academia or greater public life. A maturing democracy should surely provide sufficient space to both listen and be heard. Complex problem-solving requires maturity and compromise. The all-or-nothing approach that burning represents will only ensure that our universities fall into a quagmire of dysfunction. Ironically, that will hurt the poor the most.

A maturing democracy should provide sufficient space to both listen and be heard

Our president deems it fit to spend R240m on his Nkandla homestead without blinking. South African Airways has been provided with a R5 billion bailout, and students are rightly asking why this could not have been put towards higher education.

The African National Congress-led government has thus lost credibility and legitimacy when it says the coffers are bare. It has largely watched passively as vice-chancellors have borne the brunt of student anger. It is hard to lay the blame for structural inequality at the door of individual vice-chancellors, even if they themselves have made mistakes. Yet, they receive little support.

In his only intervention, Zuma simply ordered a zero percent fee increase for 2017. However, where is the plan for higher education that asks some tougher questions about the survival of universities and tertiary education in general?

How creative are we about trying to ensure access to education more broadly, or are we on the misguided track that going to university is the only way to secure a job and earn a decent living? How much intellectual energy has been put into thinking about rebuilding colleges, about teacher training and schools of skill, for instance? And when and how will we start having this conversation in the midst of the rage and burning?

There are many things to lament in our society. Post-apartheid mistakes have been made; none more so than in education.

We have to accept that and come to a point where dialogue happens constructively. A Fees Commission will not solve this problem.

It will doubtless simply be another Zuma-type “solution” to kick the problem into touch.

The state needs to provide leadership and assistance to those in universities who have proposed solutions.

It needs to deal with growing student anger too and help university leadership (including students) define the terms of engagement.

Many have argued that the traditionally white universities (read: privileged) will survive because they are “white spaces”.

That is not at all self-evident. What is self-evident is that the current trajectory is unsustainable, both for students and the universities themselves. We need to find solutions; and that means sitting down and finding a middle way. – ISS

*Judith February is a consultant in the Governance, Crime and Justice Division, Institute of Security Studies, Pretoria. This article was first published by EyeWitnessNews.