[notice]Pastor and author Afrika Mhlophe reflects on the turmoil on South African university campuses, three of which he has recently visited — as a mission speaker, part of a church dialogue-facilitation team, and observer.[/notice]
I am writing from Cape Town where I have just had the opportunity to visit the University of Cape Town and interact with students. I also visited Nelson Mandela Metropolitan and Rhodes universities last week.
At all of these campuses I found there were definitely students in dire need of assistance to not only access but complete their higher education.
I also discovered, firsthand, that the majority of university students are desperate to resume their academic programmes. These students know full well that the window of opportunity for completing this academic year is rapidly closing, but they are largely powerless against those who want universities to remain shut.
The majority group reminded me of those people who the 19th century philosopher and naturalist Henry Thoreau spoke of when he said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Indeed, many of the students are quietly frantic.
Those fighting an unjust system which deprives many poor, young people of the opportunity of tertiary education, are entirely convinced that their right to protest weighs more heavily than the right of the rest to study. But justice is an even line. It cannot be flexed or bent on account of someone’s personal cause or material conditions.
So, while the voices of the poor and the marginalised need to be heard, it cannot mean muzzling others or trampling on their right to go back to class.
I think efforts to stop the violent protests are hampered by several factors.
First, the small group involved in the violent protest has become remarkably nimble. The government rightly or wrongly claims “regime change agents” or agents provocateurs are complicit in stirring up havoc for political reasons.
Little to lose
That allegation aside, the fact that the stance of those students seemingly bent on violence has hardened to the degree that it has, suggests some of them have very little to lose. Why is that? That in itself is an issue that needs to be unpacked in its entirety.
President Jacob Zuma has called education a “societal issue”. Well the same applies to violent protests. Many in our society have sought to rationalise the violence as a natural trajectory resulting from frustration at the actions of a series of governments – old and new – and therefore legitimate.
But while the initial student protests may have been necessary, and perhaps even cathartic, there is no disguising the fact that things are now completely out of hand. On some campuses there is also a strong anti-white sentiment that points to a political hand that might have hijacked the cause.
Rocks, rubber bullets and stun grenades have become the order of the day. A life has been lost and another is in the balance. As I write, Universities of South Africa, the organisation representing the country’s tertiary institutions, has revealed that the damage to university property since violence started has escalated to an estimated R1-billion.
South African society generally is fixated on and convulsed by violence. But now it feels as if we have regressed to the days of apartheid where a small minority reduced the lives of the majority to a state of quiet desperation.
Somewhere, somehow we must find a way to draw the line.
If we do not, we will continue to slide into an abyss where a loud and active minority rules a silent and timid majority. I like the statement from the Nelson Mandela Bay arm of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) offering solidarity to the students but simultaneously calling for a de-escalation of violence.
‘It is now enough’
“It is now enough. No matter how just the cause, the loss of life, the destruction of property and the injury to students and others – unintentional as it may be – is a point at which we must draw the line,” said the SACC.
No matter what history might have done to us as a society, violence cannot continue to be the way we automatically react. While it may seem to have short term benefits, it always creates longer term problems. It also shows a lack of creativity.
Zimbabweans for example, led by the vocal pastor, Evan Mawarire, recently showed us it is possible to virtually shut down a country without violence, destruction or intimidation and gain the attention of the world. Yes, their struggle for reforms continues, but it has not been with human life and wanton destruction as collateral.