Reality & danger of SA student protests

Posted on April 2, 2016


First published in the April edition of Bulletin & Record, Zambia

Over the past year South African university students have protested on campuses around the country, in one case burning down a science faculty building, in others torching buses and cars and burning paintings looted from university halls. The protests started last year at the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a call to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

Social media and instant cellular communication saw the upheavals spread rapidly and spill over into a generally popular call to abolish fees. Faced with an increase in already high costs at university, students on campuses in almost every centre erupted into protest and thousands crashed into the parliamentary precinct.

In days, the government backed down, with President Jacob Zuma announcing a zero percent increase. This action, which left higher education minister Blade Nzimande — he doubles as general secretary of the Communist Party (SACP) — rather isolated, also emboldened student activists.

More demands emerged, some of them having little apparent substance apart from resistance for the sake of resistance, and with little thought to the potential future consequences. Among the latest protests race and language have came to the fore.

“What we are seeing now is the emergence of nihilism, opposing all authority merely because it is authority,” one senior academic noted. This is still the province of small but vocal minorities on campuses, but their actions grab the headlines. Even at student rallies, only a minority of students have been involved, but radical groups have capitalised on a number of grievances that have been simmering for more than 20 years.

In April 1994 millions of voters streamed to the polls encouraged by the promises of the African National Congress (ANC): jobs, houses and health care, along with free and equal education for all. By 1996 there were already rumbles of disappointment as all that seemed to change was the complexion of most parliamentarians and the fact that several darker faces appeared in the upper echelons of Big Business.

Now, with the insecurity and fear still being spread by the global economic crisis, all the resentment and tensions of recent decades is coming to the surface. This when the governing party is in turmoil and there are crucial local government elections only months away.

In such conditions, politicians of various stripes have their agendas in play in a country with 11 official languages and where universities have, traditionally, taught mainly through the English or Afrikaans medium. And Afrikaans has generally been associated with the Afrikaner nationalists who introduced and administered apartheid. The historically the Afrikaans language and formerly racially exclusive institutions — Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Free State and Stellenbosch — adapted to the post 1994 political dispensation by adopting a dual language policy, translating — sometimes, it is claimed, not very well — Afrikaans lectures into English.

But, as Reitumetse Ratlhogo a founder member of the University of Pretoria (UP) protest movement, UPrising, maintains, this situation disadvantages the majority of students whose first language is one of the local vernaculars. The overwhelming majority of these students, along with those whose first language is Afrikaans, have English as a second language. English, therefore, is the language most in common.

According to Ratlhogo, to use English would be multiculturism in practice, a linguistically relatively level playing field. However, his view tends to be drowned out by small hard core groups of “black” and “white” nationalists, the one group demanding a vague “all African” approach, the other the retention — even dominance — of Afrikaans.

If ever there was proof that emotional conviction based on ignorance is a dangerous combination, this is it. In the first place, the Afrikaans language, widely known a century and more ago as “kitchen Dutch” developed among the slaves and artisans imported from what is today Indonesia, Malaysia and Madagascar; it developed as a means to communicate among themselves and with the Dutch settlers. In fact, the first book written in Afrikaans was in the phonetic Arabic script.

But this language, still the most widely spoken first language among the large “coloured” communities of the Western Cape, was adopted as a rallying point for white racism. And it has again emerged in this role promoted by the small, militaristic, Kommandokorps and, more on a proclaimed “cultural and not racist” basis by a group known as Afriforum. They want Afrikaans retained as a medium instruction at traditionally Afrikaans universities.

On the other side, one of the more prominent spokespersons is Chumani Maxwele, a UCT student who triggered the Rhodes Must Fall protests when he threw a bucket of excrement over a statue of Rhodes. He did so in the presence of a reporter and photographer of the local Cape Times newspaper and his action made front page news. This raises questions about the role of the media, especially in Cape Town, where the current owner of the local English language media is known to harbour bitter resentment against the current vice chancellor of the university.

Maxwele claims that all university subjects, including physics and mathematics, are colonial and “Western”; that the curricula at all universities should be “African” and that all lecturers should be “black”. Although he could not be seen as directly responsible for the recent “anti-colonial protest” at UCT, his influence was certainly there when portraits — including one of anti-apartheid icon Molly Blackburn — were looted and burned.

But the degree of publicity accorded the protests and the often uncritical reporting of historical fictions and ignorant outbursts, along with the rapid climbdown by government last year over fees, has emboldened other groups. Last month (March) a photographic exhibition at UCT to commemorate the Rhodes Must Fall protests was vandalised by a group of naked members of the university’s Trans Collective. This group, representing “transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex students” claimed they were being excluded and so smeared photographic exhibits and themselves with red paint.

At a time of heightened economic and political tensions these individuals and groups are riding an admitted wave of long suppressed and deep seated resentment. But perhaps unintentionally, their actions may well provide an embattled government with the excuse to declare a state of emergency or to delay or even postpone elections.

Posted in: Reports abroad