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NARRATIVE: The Oxygen of Sympathy

Defend Truth


NARRATIVE: The Oxygen of Sympathy

Like the long spate of strikes that took place this winter, the violent protests at Wits University in September were symptomatic of a country with a massive income gap. The author, who witnessed the protests from the inside, explains why the students didn’t do their (just) cause any good. By Kevin Bloom.

The reading prescribed for the afternoon lecture on Tuesday, September 15, was entitled “Pressure Group Politics and the Oxygen of Publicity”. At least half the class was missing, which I took to be a function of the fact that the material wasn’t all that interesting. Still, at the time we were only about two months into the course, so there was a lot I had to learn about undergraduates – for instance, very few of them prepare readings in advance, and lecturers really have to sweat to make anything “all that interesting”.

But that Tuesday afternoon was proving tougher than usual to draw them in. If the lecture topic had been “tabloidisation”, say, as it was three weeks before, I could have brought a few back-editions of the Daily Sun to class, pointed out the chronic use of exclamation marks on front-page leads – “Tokolosh Took my Virginity!!!” – and soon I’d have had a lively debate going about whether the newspaper represents an egregious dumbing-down of old-school news values or a democratic articulation of non-elitist sentiment. Not that afternoon, though. On Tuesday September 15, all I had to work with was a reading out of McNair’s An Introduction to Political Communication (1995):

“By definition marginal political actors, operating outside of the established institutions, stand at a disadvantage with respect to mainstream parties, and government and official bodies. They are relatively lacking in the resources which enable the latter to make news and set public agendas.”

Anybody? Anybody?

I called the break five minutes early and left the lecture hall to take in the view from the Umthombo Building’s third-floor balcony. From up there, Wits University’s East Campus is an impressive spectacle. To the south is the front façade of the Great Hall, a neo-classical amalgam of imposing columns and sharp geometric angles; to the west, the William Cullen Library, its architecture inspired by the Petit Trianon in the Gardens of Versailles; to the north, beyond the campus lawns and the forested suburbs of Johannesburg, the Magaliesburg stretches purple across the horizon.

“Do you know why class is so empty today?” a student asked, interrupting my reverie.

“Tell me.”

“It’s the student protests. Haven’t you seen the posters? They’ve been dragging staff out of the lecture halls and dancing on the desks. You’d better be careful.”

He was smiling as he said this, an invitation not to take him too seriously. Besides, the protests were apparently about a rise in student fees, an issue that had little to do with the wild campus confrontations I’d encountered as a Wits undergraduate during the transition in the early ‘90s. I thanked him for the information and walked back into the hall. I continued where I’d left off.

“Another form of subordinate organisation is the single-issue or pressure group, which exists to campaign on a particular issue of special importance. The pressure group, too, will often find itself confronting established power, challenging positions which are dominant. This they will typically do from a “resource poor” position…”

A bass chant suddenly erupted outside, punctuated by footfalls. It was growing louder. I stopped reading and looked up. I caught the eye of the student who had “warned” me during the break. “Should we go check if they’re coming?” he asked. I nodded. The student and his friend ran up the aisle and out the door. I carried on.

“This they will typically do from a ‘resource poor’ position, compelling them to find ways of participating in and contributing to public debate which do not require material or cultural “capital”. For such groups, the use and manipulation of the media to communicate political messages is potentially the most effective way of achieving this intervention…”

The student and his friend appeared back in the doorway, faces flushed. “They’re coming! They’re in the building!”

There didn’t seem to be a choice. The hall had only one exit route: down the stairs and into the oncoming protesters. The students didn’t deserve to be intimidated – they were in class, after all, there to learn  – and the personal threat of a manhandling was now all too real. “Okay, that’s it for today. Leave quickly.”

We made it to the ground floor in time to see another class filing out of their own hall. I pushed through the throng and onto the lawns. I heard somebody say, “Yoh, the white girls are scared.” I looked around – the white girls did look scared. But then, I couldn’t exactly boast the pulse of a resting athlete.

I sat on a bench and watched the protesters move toward their next target. The student, the one who had warned me, the one who had gone outside to check, sat down beside me. He put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture of solidarity, or friendship. It made me uncomfortable. He was not my friend; I was not sure I wanted his support. “Are you okay?” he asked. His concern, which seemed genuine, bothered me. What was going on here? What were my responsibilities in all of this?  

Here’s what I learned from a report in The Star the next morning.

The protests started on Monday September 14, when a group of around twenty students disrupted lectures, dancing on desks and ordering students out. By Tuesday, with that number swelling to over two hundred, the levels of intimidation had increased. The day began with the group upturning dustbins before gathering in Senate House to present a memorandum of grievances to the university’s vice chancellor, Loyisa Nongxa. When Nongxa sent the registrar in his place, the protesters refused to hand the memorandum over and descended on East Campus instead. More lectures were disrupted, more students intimidated. One student was locked in a classroom, the protesters triumphantly announcing they had taken a “hostage”. Three lecturers who tried to prevent the group from entering a lecture hall where an exam was taking place were shoved aside. Protesters grabbed the students’ exam papers off the desks and tore them up. They then moved onto Yale Road, the main thoroughfare through the university, and banged on cars that were driving past.

The stated reason for the protest was a proposed 9.5 percent increase in ordinary student fees, a 15 percent rise in MBA fees, and an 11,8 percent rise in residence fees.

Which, when I gave it proper thought over the following days, was clearly a legitimate gripe. It was, too, an issue that exposed the racial tensions that are never bubbling far below the university’s multicultural surface.

That week, a mock Berlin Wall had been set up outside the Wits Great Hall. As a SAPA report attested – and I’d witnessed first-hand – white students sat near the wall enjoying the live music, celebrating the distant and remote end of the Cold War, while many of their black compatriots faced the very immediate prospect of an end to their university careers. As one student, Tumz B, told SAPA: “I hate to describe it as white and black because the divide is more a class divide, but it’s a fact that poorer students are mostly black. Most white students won’t protest because their parents can afford the fee.”

These sentiments were echoed by the Progressive Youth Alliance – comprising the South African Student Congress, ANC Youth League and Young Communist League (YCL) – the umbrella body under which the protesters were united. “The continuing commoditisation of education and related student fee increments serve to reproduce national, class and gender inequalities that were transferred from colonial and apartheid socio-economic relations,” said YCL provincial secretary Alex Mashilo.

Inflammatory, yes; but a statement that’s hard to fault. And yet Nongxa, for good reason, was unimpressed. While the vice-chancellor reaffirmed the rights of students to hold peaceful protests, he stressed that academic activities must remain sacrosanct. Ultimately, Wits University obtained an interdict preventing students from disrupting classes, intimidating those who refused to join their cause, and damaging property. The ensuing police presence and threat of arrest brought a swift end to the trouble.

In mid-November now, with students almost done with exams, Wits University is quiet. An organisation called Higher Education SA, which represents 23 tertiary education institutions across the country, is debating ways to lessen the reliance on student fees. Something called a “third income stream” is being proposed, and avenues are being explored within a “framework with a set of strategies and approaches.” It sounds like NGO-speak to me, but here’s hoping.

And next year, here’s hoping too that when Wits students protest – as they will – they recognise that a place at one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities is a privilege, not a right. As McNair has it, they are a pressure group that knows how to fan the oxygen of publicity, and this year their cause was just. Problem is, 2009’s tactics involved starving themselves of the equally necessary oxygen of sympathy.

By Kevin Bloom

Kevin Bloom’s book Ways of Staying, a narrative non-fiction journey through contemporary South Africa, is available at bookstores nationwide. It will be published in the UK by Portobello Books in April 2010. A story at once deeply personal and edifyingly public, Ways of Staying is one man’s journey into the heart of a country that remains riven and undefined. From the murder of the author’s cousin in 2006 to the hills of Zululand mere weeks after the death of historian David Rattray, from the fateful ruling party showdown at Polokwane in 2007 to the xenophobic attacks of winter 2008, this is a book that ventures far beneath the headlines and into the very marrow of a strange and troubled land.


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