South Africa

Grahamstown Spring: As real as the smell of rain on dry earth

By Richard Pithouse 26 October 2015

Everybody knows, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, that the deal is rotten. Everybody knows that we can’t carry on as we are. Everybody knows that Zuma can’t take us out of the morass into which we are sinking. By RICHARD PITHOUSE.

It’s Sunday night in Grahamstown. After an extraordinary week of struggle, here and across the country, students are gathered for a vigil.

This is a town born in the blood and terror of a colonial crime. That crime structures the present. There are perpetually emerald fields on one side of town and shacks on the other. Colonel Graham’s crime doesn’t sit in the dark quiet of the earth, like an invisible foundation holding up the present. It festers in the present. It rots and runs, slow and viscous, through everyday sociality. To live here one must wade through its heaviness day after day.

The corner of the town strung between the university, the shopping mall and the schools for the children of the rich, is shrinking into itself. But, richer than ever, and patrolled by men with guns, it sustains a manicured but jittery power. Outside of this bubble the old contempt is still being written into the surface of the earth. The RDP houses, built on the same side of town as the shacks, are tiny, cold, damp and frequently broken. People live and children play amidst piles of rubbish. It blows in the wind and rots in the sun. Sitting in a shack, burning plastic to keep warm, it’s the surreal hulk of a ruined school that breaks the sky. Here it’s rare for a young person to have a job.

Even the City Hall, the seat of political power, is sinking into decay. It’s the police station up on the hill that is all sharp angles, shiny and new. But people do not feel safe. In recent months the bodies of young women, naked and violated, have been appearing in the interstices of the town. Rumours have exceeded the available facts. Here the part of Roberto Bolaño’s giant novel set in the wastelands of the Mexican borderlands can start to feel like a grim and haunting vision of one possible future.

Last year the university was assured of its excellence and virtue. Ideas brought into this place on the back of the colonial crime, ideas developed with the precise purpose of separating the civilized and the barbarous, were taught with imperious confidence. But, beginning in March this year, the power to teach, without contestation, the grammar of oppression as if it were in fact the grammar of universal freedom has been broken. The power of the professoriate is now subject to open critique by a brave and brilliant generation of black students. The attempts to restore the old order, to restore the monopoly – an acutely raced monopoly – that had been exercised over the theorisation and implementation of ‘transformation’ for twenty years, are evidently brittle and wholly unpersuasive. Something has shifted.

Just after midnight on Sunday last week the barricades went up. Tyres were burnt. The grammar of struggle, of popular struggle in the cities of the South, from Durban to Port-au-Prince and La Paz, had entered the university, and the broader elite zone. On Monday a connection was made to the struggle of working class students at the Further Education and Training College down the road. Inevitably the grammar of repression – in this case the water cannon and the stun grenade – followed that afternoon. After the attack a young woman, a brilliant young woman, a leader in new student politics, sat on the main barricade in the gloaming, her whole body shaking in shock. In the days to come what has been done to the poor, largely without objection from the middle classes, day after day and year after year, would, around the country, repeatedly be done within the zones of privilege and to the children of the middle classes.

The practice and language of struggle moved with the sometimes-astonishing rapidity that becomes possible in periods of intense collective action. The day after the police attack Blade Nzimande and Jacob Zuma were, resolutely, in the sights of this struggle. A struggle that, while part of a national and international moment, had begun by taking the university, and its racism, as its primary target was now at odds with the ruling party. It was implicitly contesting the party’s claim to be the rightful custodian of the national struggle.

On Wednesday, as sympathetic academics were at the City Hall working to secure the right of the students to march out of the campus without the risk of assault at the hands of the police, a protest organised by the local taxi association arrived. Some of the taxis that blocked the road outside the City Hall were adorned with signs declaring ‘They Must Go’ and ‘Burn Them’. For weeks a rumour had been circulating that the person responsible for the murders in the town was, ‘an Arab’, a ‘man with a beard’. This had turned into a general hostility towards Muslim traders from, in particular, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia. Attempts were made to ally this hostility to a claim that these traders had ‘come to destroy black business’.

Everybody knows, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, that the deal is rotten. Everybody knows that we can’t carry on as we are. Everybody knows that Zuma can’t take us out of the morass into which we are sinking. As the student march finally got under way on one side of town the attacks on migrant Muslim traders began on the other side. Two visions of the future, both internally complex, contradictory and contested, were playing themselves out within a five-minute walk from each other.

One the one side local elites were exploiting real fears and a real crisis to advance a politics of authoritarianism and ruthless chauvinism in which their own material interests could be conflated with those of the nation. One the other side some of the brightest and best of our young people were at the centre of a project organised and sustained, although not without some strain at some points, around a set of emancipatory ideas.

Now it’s Sunday night. People are gathered on the street, the street that became the primary site of insurgent student assembly over the last week. Four women, two students, an academic and a priest, speak on the meaning of what has happened. This is, the first speaker reminds us, a vigil – purposeful wakefulness – wakefulness, she adds, for the woke. The ancient, it seems, is entwined with the hip. There is a prayer. Thanks are offered for the grace that has seen everyone make it through these extraordinary days.

The first intellectual to be mentioned is Frantz Fanon, who wrote his first book as a student in Lyon in 1952. He wanted, he wrote “to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help build it together”. Racism denied him the possibility of being a person among people. In Grahamstown in 2015 that book retains extraordinary power. Students sometimes weep when discussing it for the first time.

The people gathered on the street are enjoined to fidelity to the opening, the new sense of self and possibility, the new form of power, that has been manifest all week. Solidarity is expressed with student struggles across the country, with the struggles of university workers and with the people driven from their shops and homes on the other side of town.

A young man reads a poem. He has chosen Derek Walcott’s The Light of the World. The poem is about many things. It begins with a beautiful young woman humming rebel music: “songs of a sadness as real as the smell of rain on dry earth”. At dusk candles are lit. The university choir begin their singing with the mournful power of ‘Senzeni Na?’. After the official programme concludes the students sing, once again, for Solomon Mahlangu, hanged, we must remember, at the age of twenty-two.

The figure of the student in the occupation, on the barricade and in the street has taken its place alongside that of the miner on strike and the person, often a woman, rebuilding their shanty, again and again, on an urban land occupation as an image of contemporary militancy. New forces are with us. New voices have taken their place in the nation. New ideas are with us. Young people have taken their place in the world and set about the work, the insurgent work, of building it. Young women are at the heart of this moment. New possibilities are opening, new possibilities forged in struggle by courageous young people, new possibilities that, like the songs of sadness, are as real as the promise that comes with the smell of rain on dry earth. DM

Photo: Rev Dr Vicentia Kgabe of the College of Transfiguration addresses at the night vigil held on Prince Alfred Street at the university currently known as Rhodes on 25 October 2015. (Photo: Kate Janse van Rensburg)


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South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

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However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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