On Holier-Than-Thou Responses to Student Protests



It would be tempting to put together a second-hand report on the actual #FeesMustFall conflicts, but others like Daily Maverick opinionista Pearl Pillay are covering that better than I can.

It’s also difficult to verify the chilling social media reports in real time.  Last night, many of us followed #ULShutdown wondering whether help was on its way for innocent bystanders caught in it.  Who qualifies as an innocent bystander is a moot debate; they get shot at, pepper-sprayed and teargased anyway.

We’re upset that our tax money is being burned at universities because we prefer to have it spent civilly on oligarchs’ vacations — and those are increasingly more luxurious.  If protesters acted like good little citizens and rolled over, it would give the reassuring impression that all is well with our fair land.  So we present an alternative: the simplistic advice that they take their fight for free, high-quality education (itself a noble cause, we insist) up with the government that’s been wasting public money.

But what do we do with the EFF’s theory that State corruption and ineffectiveness are intimately woven into the 1994 settlement’s maintenance of white supremacy and inequality?  We live in a butterfly effect universe.  To change the smallest variable at one point, we need to alter the whole Jenga tower.  We cannot demand a less corrupt government in 2016 without simultaneously demanding real sacrifices from the beneficiaries of apartheid in 1994.  We cannot shift one tile without changing the whole mosaic.  Yet the myth of white innocence still justifies holier-than-thou tweets about the use of the stick and woke students (side-eyes Helen Zille) in a country that shoots its black protesters for sport.

Our Mandelified non-racial discourse inoculates the white beneficiaries of apartheid, the system largely rigged to protect their place in the economic status quo, from black students’ “civilized” explanations as to why they’re so angry.  It insulates observes from recognising their implication in violence perpetrated by private and public sources.  That, and Power’s reliable unreliability, is why many of these students are disillusioned with negotiation and have resorted to this.

However inconvenient it is, we cannot deny oppressed people the right to reject law and order when those subvert justice; to eschew endless negotiation that delays relief.  Otherwise we’d have to condemn the anti-apartheid struggle.  We’d also have to deny the oppressed their right to exist — a task the State and private security companies will rush to before they dip so much as a toe in real justice.  This is to silence protest before you and I recognise Power’s violence as proxy condemnation of the anti-apartheid struggle in the bodies of the students who were never supposed to rise above the cycle poverty that keeps the machine going.

We could circumvent 1994’s hangover through political realignment.  But the official opposition party’s trickle-down economic policies will widen the gap between the rich and the poor.  We must also remember that its mostly-white network of government officials, service providers and constituency yields better results on measurables like clean audits because its individuals never returned what they gained under apartheid.  Many of its people’s temptation to corruption is lessened because that corruption was never rectified.

That the ANC absorbed members of the NNP or that the DA was formed long after 1994 does not change that these parties’ respective members began life as human results of apartheid’s economic and racial policies.  To uncritically swallow the DA’s message that its successes are disconnected to structural racism is to accept the ANC’s failures as the natural outcome of its being a black liberation movement.  That’s the lens through which we view post-liberation African governments.  It allows the beneficiaries of apartheid to secretly long for the good old days (side-eyes Dianne Kohler Barnard) in the same breath that they claim respect for struggle stalwarts.  In a system built for their and their consciousness’s comfort, they’ve never had to know when being on the wrong side of the law was the only way to be on the right side of history.

One of them insisted that “reasonable” UL students would non-threateningly leave the premises.  Someone else replied, “Why don’t you sit on the golden throne apartheid gave you and enjoy your white privilege in quiet?”  Many of the students at the UL res were practically ambushed: they were plunged into darkness (the power was cut) while pepper spray, stun grenades and rubber bullets whizzed around them.  Why expect that if cameras turned on those students at that moment, they’d be facing their lot with harps and halos instead of throwing rocks and burning property?

South Africa is built on the valorisation of black martyrdom on the one hand and the vilification of black martyrs on the other.  Piousness in the abstract-historical is desired; it sanitises and dignifies the measures it takes to change the status quo as though it isn’t as bad as violent protesters make it out to be.  This minimises implication.  But people in the concrete-now aren’t as desirable because they’re the actual results of the status quo’s violence.  That’s why we can grieve how the apartheid government criminalized St. Mandela while demanding that the current government presume all student protesters guilty of criminal activity until they’re proven innocent.

We’ve elevated sanctimony to a fine art.  Violent protesters anger us because they refuse to let us have that cake and eat it.

Please share and retweet: @SKhumalo1987


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