In these times in South Africa many people are very perplexed about how to react to the student uprisings on our campuses and the way they are carried out. What mainly creates the perplexity is a sense that maybe the students, especially poor ones, do have in many ways a valid cause and legitimate grounds for grievance.
People sense this. But they cannot come to terms with many of the methodologies used to express these grievances and draw attention to them. One thinks of burning libraries or laboratories, destroying and vandalising property, disrupting classes, shouting abuse at lecturers or fellow students, threatening Vice-Chancellors, damaging vehicles, or planting explosives in lecture theatres as happened with a Wits lecturer friend of mine where the explosive injured one of his students.
What we are seeing here illustrates an interesting, universal and precarious behaviour pattern – namely the Righting of Wrongs with Wrongs, or the perpetration of Wrong in the name of Right.
I have seen this in many places. For example, a good many years ago I was visiting in Uganda where, as in most countries, crime was on the increase, particularly theft. In fact so seriously did the government view ‘theft with violence’ that the death penalty could be imposed for this type of crime.
This concern had been conveyed to the general populace, who came to view theft as almost the Number One cancer in the society.
Indeed, so involved did people become in righting this wrong that if they caught a thief they could beat him or her insensible and quite often to death. After all, theft could not be tolerated. Fortunate, then, was the thief who had the police arrive in the shortest possible time. It probably saved him his life.
After being told about this, I was provided one night with a dramatic audio-visual aid. Sometime long before dawn I was awakened by some piercing yells in the street. Leaping like a springbok from my bed, I rushed to the window and peered out. A thief had been caught, and the local yokels were busy bumping him off so as to teach him not to steal.
After adding to the commotion a few menacing yells of my own, I heard the police whistles and then saw the crowd, like Stephen Leacock’s rider, galloping off in all directions, deliciously satisfied with their night’s contribution to the rectifying of Uganda’s ills.
Giving vent to evil impulses
The whole incident made a profound impression on me, because it pointed out dramatically the common and deliciously satisfying experience of being able to give vent, in the name of righteousness, to the evil impulses of our lower natures.
The animal and the divine in us can thus find outlet at one and the same moment, with the latter providing a perverted excuse for the former. After all, if one is aggressively inclined, how splendid to be able to capitulate to that aggression with blind and moral satisfaction that one is correcting some dangerous evil.
Anyway, coming back to the South African situation, many students would respond that they have indeed tried more reasonable and rational ways of getting the attention of government in general and educational authorities in particular, but nothing has come of it. So what are they to do?
In this I think the Church particularly needs to stand up and affirm as clearly as possible that the Bible is a book of means as well as ends. Thus Jesus could say I am the Way — John 14:6, and in saying so I believe He was not just speaking of Himself as the Way of Salvation but as the Way in anything and everything. He is both Method and Means of achieving life’s legitimate goals.
This means in this present upheaval amongst our students that the Christian Church should be intervening boldly to call for and facilitate the bringing of both sides together for rational discussion and reasoned, responsible exchanges of viewpoints. With the right kind of facilitation it should be possible for each side to come to understand the other.
Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, sees one of the key habits as always seeking to understand before you are understood. Our students and our educational authorities could well take up this counsel.
Then something else critically important needs to happen. First of all, the two sides need to identify the problem. In this case it is the unaffordability of tertiary education for many students who intellectually qualify for it.
Once the problem is thus identified both sides need to adopt a partnership and collegial approach to the problem rather than an adversarial one. Thus instead of being adversaries attacking one another, both sides become cooperating partners in together tackling a common problem.
A radically different way
It is a radically different way of doing things and it can definitely work to achieve otherwise impossible goals. Reason and good will are required on both sides. And the outcomes can be pretty spectacular.
The problem of trying to right wrongs the wrong way is not confined to group behaviour. It is often individual. A schoolboy, genuinely desirous to please his teacher, cheats in order to impress. A young man, keen to show that he loves his girlfriend, insists on pre-marital sex to prove the fact. A parent, eager to control a teenage daughter, begins to over-discipline and dominate, thereby satisfying at the same time a power-lust or neurotically possessive spirit.
And so, in one way or another, injustices are committed in the name of justice, and Wrongs perpetrated in the name of Rights.
Christian commitment, however, includes means as well as ends. The legitimate end is only to be achieved by legitimate means. Interestingly enough, for Jesus, Love was the ultimate End, and also the perfect means. Its manner of behaviour is set forth in 1 Corinthians 13. Why not read it?
And above all remember, Jesus said, I am the Way — John 14:6.