THE events of the past weeks have shown that campus revolt, risks spilling over into bloodshed. Violence begets violence. In a country where the wounds of apartheid and the scars of the past conflict run deep, where the reality looms of yet another civil war, the agenda-driven Rhodes Must Fall campaign and the bucket list of demands surrounding the student movement, needs to be debated, not on its own terms, but by the standards set by the broader community.
As a banned student involved in the campus revolts of 1987, much of which remained unreported by the press, (since journalists faced security legislation as well as bars on reporting imposed by the Minister of Justice under apartheid), I can only comment here on what appear to be copycat acts of arson. Ours was most certainly a justifiable uprising, against an illegitimate regime, can one really say the exact same of today’s would-be heroes, already lauded by the press for following in our footsteps?
The main difference between my generation and the students of the current decade, is that we were making art while setting fire to the apartheid state. Instead of removing statues we sought to remove apartheid statutes. Tearing down legal acts, not effigies. Removing edicts not icons. The campus violence of the past week in which artworks were burnt at UCT, science centres set ablaze at NWU, and other campuses, is thus dangerously reminiscent of similar actions by fascist movements around the globe.
For most of my life, I’ve had to walk past the statue of the Dutch Reformed Church minister Andrew Murray, the Martin Luther-like character outside Die Groote Kerk in Adderley Street. Luther was a flaming Anti-Semite whose writing advocated the burning of Synagogues and the excoriation of Jews, in a racist ideology which prefigured Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the events of Kristallnacht and Nuremberg. The same ideology formed the basis for the NGK which only repudiated the heresy of apartheid in 1982.
Although the subject of an ongoing dispute involving the Church, I don’t see any point in removing the statue, but must admit to harbouring similar thoughts to those incendiary members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
Burning artwork and erasing history doesn’t solve anything.
Destroying libraries and science centres creates the impression that those doing the torching are nothing less than reactionaries, opposed to modernity.
As Mandela himself said: “It is easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.”
Instead of debating the issues, would-be protesters and non-aligned students alike, are now wading in and coming to blows. The latest round of unrest has seen violence flare up at TUKS and UFS over language policy. Every campus in South Africa has become involved.
The sheer physicality of the incidents is troubling and certainly the very opposite of academic freedom.
It troubles me that many of the demands of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and the broader student movement are seen as a foregone conclusion. In particular the so-called campaign of decolonisation which seems to me to have all the elements of a lustration and ritual bloodletting, instead of creating a foundation and genuine attempt at nation-building.
Calls for the creation of an African University to counter-balance the ivy-league European institutions which grace our nation, are a start, but first we need to put a stop to the violence.
If student politics is undermining national unity, is it time for mom and pop to get involved? Unless the country is able to grapple with the problematic raised by students, we risk repeating history, the result may not be palatable, a nullification of the freedom struggle and its replacement by open rebellion, that has nothing to do with democracy, and everything to do with the political game-plan of those who wish to bypass the legislature, hoping to install themselves in a bloody uprising.
Lets take a look at some of the critique of the RMF movement inside South Africa:
Robert Morrell of UCT writes “In the case of campus violence, most explanations sound as though they have been made up after the event. There is no evidence of careful consideration, or discussion, never mind any thought for the consequences of the course of action taken.”
Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar writing in The Daily Maverick says: “I have heard words such as “anti-black” and “oppressive” multiple times during my short stint on this campus. The difficulty of transient populations of students is that they alone must struggle against this system.”
Former Deputy President of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at Wits University writes: “F*** white people’ is an appropriate expression of black pain… But those who accuse the student of racism miss the point.”
From reading the above, it is clear that South Africa isn’t really debating any of the issues. The events of the past days and weeks have simply been allowed to run their course, as the country fixates on the presidency of beleaguered ANC leader Jacob Zuma, and an economic crisis of our own making.