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3 December 2016 17:32 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

So, Blade is a coward. What's next, Mr President?

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

The first fact that South Africans of good will must agree on, is that the leaders of the ANC who were gathered in Parliament yesterday were afraid, and that the most fearful of them all was one Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, whose job it is to address the concerns of students.

He was so afraid that he hid for five hours. The consequences of his fear – and that of his cowardly colleagues who no longer deserve to be called leaders – was that students waited to be addressed for an unnecessarily long time. We all know and understand that a crowd that is kept waiting will either disperse or grow angrier. Anyone who has been watching the unfolding events of the last few days would have known that they would not disperse and so surely the police and politicians knew this too.

Once the crowd had been angered by Nzimande’s cowardice – it is important that we agree that he was not acting out of arrogance but out of fear– the excessive police presence then became ‘justified.’

When the barbarians at the gate would not go away because the Minister’s fear kept him in hiding, Nzimande finally emerged. His time spent sweating in a parliamentary cupboard had not provided him with any new insights: He seemed unable to use his legendary silver tongue. It seemed to have lost its magic, and the puffery and arrogance to which we have become accustomed from him had also disappeared. His meek attempt to rally them by offering them revolutionary greetings fell flat: It appears that grandstanding to a gallery of adoring and ageing SACP members is easier than standing in front of people to whom you are actually constitutionally accountable.

It is especially hard to think straight when you remember the old adage that you reap what you sow, and then you look in front of you at a field full of discontent and realise that these are the products of your neglect and callousness.

The second fact, on which we must all reach consensus, is that the police became especially heavy-handed when the President and his men decided to leave the scene. The President of the country decided that if his minister was afraid, then he had every reason to also be fearful since technically he is Nzimande's boss. And so, instead of standing up from his chair inside the house of parliament and coming down to the barricades, instead of using the powers of mediation we are told he put to effect in Burundi to negotiate peace, instead of deploying that legendary charm to placate his people and to assure them that their struggles matter, he thought to himself, ‘It’s time I got out of here.’

And so the police began to bash at the barbarians at the gate to safeguard the barbarians within. The fact that the protesters put their hands up in peace, that they screamed and cried, that they sang and marched did not matter to the police because their instructions were clear: to protect the safety of the President and his cabinet, who were hiding inside.

You could see that the police were worried that the students - who stood in righteous indignation as President Zuma and his cabinet had once also done on the streets with their sticks and their passion and their love for justice and fairness – might see the sleek black Benzes gliding away, and decide to jeer at them or overturn them or in some other way, express their displeasure directly and with no respect for their status as VIPs. And so the police used their heavy-handed, desperate and illegal tactics to disperse the crowd so that their principals could quietly escape from the back of the building.

This is another fact that we must never forget:

The President and his Cabinet left without putting on their sirens.

Yesterday it seemed unstrategic to announce themselves with blaring horns and the kind of driving we are used to from them that says that those inside the car are more important to those who are outside it. Yesterday they were discreet because they were afraid.

Once again we have reached a crucial moment in our democracy where the leadership of the ANC is being tested. Sadly, it is unlikely they will pass this one since there has not been a single test of this nature that the people who lead us have passed of late. They routinely fail any and all tests of leadership even as they pass any and all tests related to imaginative obfuscation and moral degradation.

They are well past shame – we know this because in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre they did nothing to fix what was broken in themselves and in the police and in the companies that have plundered this nation from the day they sent Jan Van Reibeek here on their behalf. They appointed a joke of a commission and buried the miners lives in graves filled with bureaucratic excuses.

But the ghosts of those miners will not be kept down by commission reports and dubious police training manuals. The students are braver than we have given them credit for because they remember the way Marikana went down and know that it should never had happened. The miner’s ghosts hover over these protests because we all know that the tension that lead to that massacre built up over five months similar to those we have seen since Rhodes fell. We all know that there came a point when the police and Lonmin and our government went into an aggressive and fearful panic.

We all can also agree on another fact, which is that these protests will not stop. There will be more and the students will soon go to Pretoria. The president and his cabinet and the police know this, just as they knew in August 2012, that the miners would continue to sit in the koppie and raise their knobkerries in defiance of the their poverty and pain.

The citizens of South Africa have a right to know exactly what President Zuma’s plan is for protesting the lives of the protesters. That plan must tell us in detail where police will be located, what their instructions are and how the protesters lives and rights will be safeguarded on Friday. Doing anything less is unconstitutional and will almost certainly lead to a loss of life.

We can no longer pretend that the role of the police is to protect the public and ensure that our rights – including our right to assemble, to protest and to access education – are guaranteed. If they were then the Acting Commissioner - one Johannes Khomotso Phahlane – might have seen fit to communicate with the public about the crisis his officers have been fanning. It seems that there are crucial sections of the oath he swore that he has forgotten because he has not explained to the South African public why his officers have engaged in unlawful and unconstitutional acts against students and other citizens who have been protesting peacefully.

We have seen over the course of the last half a decade that the police are deployed time and again as a private security force for the president and his Cabinet. Why? Because these people are scared and a government that is afraid of its people is a government that has lost the faith of its people.

Today the facts of what happened yesterday matter and the truth of what is planned for tomorrow's march matters just as much. We know all too well that those who rule in fear only understand the language of violence and so we have a right to know what actions the police are planning so that those who are advancing our collective rights can protect themselves.

We can no longer pretend that this is a confident government. Our leaders are secure in comfort, but by God it is clear that they are not secure in their leadership. Their decision to flee the scene rather than address it will be remembered for the act of cowardice that it was. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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