These protests, vast and varied as they have been, fall within the context of hundreds, if not thousands of service delivery strikes, miners’ protests and countless corruption scandals that have contributed colourfully to the complex mosaic of post-apartheid South Africa.
Rezoning towards the university, which for better or worse is a position I write from, I reflect on our role – as small as it may be – in contributing and combating the self-evidently grossly unequal society we find ourselves. In doing so I cannot help but reflect on the utility of various forms of protest as a means of addressing the material oppression that people all over respond to as a matter of survival.
The treatment of these protests by the state and public universities in South Africa most glaringly demonstrate the disproportionate ways in which violence is sanctioned and demonstrated on the working class and the institutions that exist to provide them services.
The internationally lauded liberal institutions such as the University of Witswaterstand and the University of Cape Town publicly perform increasingly contrived manoeuvres to mask and justify their conservative disposition to “change” while simultaneously attempting to claim virtuous and blameless participation in very “mass student-worker action” that rebelled against their collective failures.
South Africa is of course far from being exceptional in this regard; universities across the globe have been involved in protests rallying for and against similar issues of discrimination, contestation of public memory, affirmative action and various kinds of anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal campaigns all the way from varsities in Nigeria through to Brazilian campuses, via India and the United States, to name but a few of very many spaces I am aware of.
The existence of these movements, I would argue, is crucial to the fabric of society in so far as they are able to raise a mirror of reflection to tensions within a world that by all reasonable accounts is becoming more materially unequal by the day. The relative health therefore of these movements that house young people bears its fruit later down the growth path of that particular society. We therefore must take seriously the lessons and legacies of the ways in which we deal, manage, encourage or suppress these youth movements with an eye towards a future that is uncertain, particularly in post-conflict and in-conflict societies.
The story of the UCT “Shackville” protest emanated out of a series of conflicts around issues of financial exclusion and the reality of a student housing crisis that left several students stranded. A shack was constructed below the iconic Jameson steps of the University of Cape Town campus, blocking a low traffic bearing road. After a day the university management ordered demonstrators to move the shack and following that confrontation the already volatile situation escalated throughout the remainder of the day, infamously involving the burning of paintings from a nearby residence, a vehicle and fire in the Vice Chancellor’s office.
If one were to locate the incident of Shackville in the context of how the space itself along with the relationships between the protesters and the university management had evolved over time, then one might be in a better position to understand how and why “Shackville” came to pass as a historical event involving acts of political violence.
This incident was preceded by months of debate around the decisions by Vice Chancellors across the country to use millions of rand of public funding to arm campuses with private security. It is of course no surprise that stifled environments with increased securitisation measures result in more extreme responses which in turn result in more securitisation, feeding the insatiable monster of the conservative protection-through-militarisation mantra.
Regardless of one’s feelings or political disposition towards the “student violence” there is surely a reasonable claim to be made to create space for critical reflection and processes that dig out the root of the conflicts in an effort to resolve them and not simply to delay them until a later date. Do we really think that militarising campuses, expelling, exiling and defaming “problem students” at the first opportunity are going to resolve the massive problems ahead of us? Do we really think that when the fees increase of 2017 is announced that there won’t be another similar uprising?
It would be easy for the powers that be to appease their councils, generous (mainly white) alumni and social class peers by removing whoever they see as bad apples in their spaces to demonstrate they are still in control, but it would be harder and more needed to enter into a restorative justice process to engage with the community in a way that looks at taking on the anger that is expressed in the physical world and begin to share the burden of the relative injustice it acts in response to.
Who is to expel the manager, the HOD, the Vice Chancellor for the material suffering that their mistakes often lead to? Who has the power to expel and to discipline? Who regulates behaviour?
If our country and its institutions are on embroiled in fire, what makes us think we can put them out with bullets and exiling?
The central thesis here is very simple: social movements at every level – the university space being but one example – are they key to the vitality of our society and whatever aspirations it may have at generating genuine bottom-up democracy. The demobilisation of the student worker movements across the country is therefore not in the interests of society, particularly one that is facing a basic and “higher” education system that is visibly buckling under the weight of inequality.
We then need to be asking creative questions around how we as a society can create an environment that is fertile to organising around social issues in ways that are more forward thinking and open minded than suspicious, sceptical and distrustful. If we do not provide space for young people to succeed, fail and feel confident to get up again then we are headed down a deadly road. If our elders are so quick to label their own children terrorists and fascists then perhaps we should first take stock of where that’s coming from and ask ourselves were we honestly think South Africa’s “long walk to freedom” is leading us to.
Looking at my own small and narrow locale, the bid to constitute a restorative justice process for an event like Shackville provides us with a means through which we can reflect on the legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a process. We can take advantage of the process of dialogue opening up a space for political theatre and critical pedagogy as means of realising the intergenerational dialogue many elders claim to desire.
Restorative justice as a principle does not “belong” to the 1996 TRC process of South Africa, and of course the comparisons are inevitable and the analogy is fraught with contradictions and anxieties, but I personally do not believe we should ever be ashamed of demanding different approaches to pursuing the ends of justice irrespective of how flawed and failed previous attempts have been.
There are many organisations and individuals in post-apartheid South Africa who actively promote the radical capacity for restorative justice as a means of resolving the conflict and legacy of political violence and now there is an opportunity to introduce publicly in new and creative ways what such processes could look like and deliver them to a new generation.
At UCT there are many famed contributors to South Africa’s liberal Constitution, which was essentially legitimised through the TRC. Hugh Corder, as but one example, has remained at UCT after having contributed to the Constitution, working as a lecturer in the law faculty and as an advisor to the Vice Chancellor.
Corder, alongside many proud constitutionalists such as Dean of Law Penny Andrews and several others, co-signed statements post-Shackville endorsing suspensions and disciplinary hearings among other things. This was the only faculty to issue such a statement and it was done so before the proverbial coals of the burnt paintings had begun to cool.
To further demonstrate the disposition of my home institution I note the appointment of Russell Ally, the executive director of alumni and development at UCT, who sits on the senior management committee, and actually worked within the TRC process in the human rights violations section – and I don’t doubt that several others within the university community played roles in the commission.
With these histories in mind it will interesting to see how our elders rationalise giving restorative justice and amnesty to apartheid criminals and murders while adopting punitive tactics of expulsion on students whose issues they claim to stand in solidarity with.
In another time one would perhaps have expected a law faculty housing so many constitutionalists to be a resounding voice within the institution calling for deeper context and restorative justice, given that this has purportedly formed the basis of the new dispensation that they vehemently defend from criticism.
What lesson is a young person to take from this? Is restorative justice a birthright of the South African white minority or is it something everyone can access, morph, critique and change?
I stand behind the assertion that securitisation will result in more extreme reactions; if the present is anything to go by this will mean more fire. I therefore propose a temporary “ceasefire” between all parties involving the repealing of private security and divestment from security upgrades and in its place, using its reserved capital, the establishment of restorative justice processes to address the political violence that has taken place in the 2015/16 period, including police brutality.
Reflecting on the anti-rape protests at the institution presently known as Rhodes University, in my limited knowledge and understanding, we are collectively witness to a political conflict where survivors of gender-based violence demand different, more humanising justice processes and access to support services. This request, delivered by using disruptive protest as a vehicle for its expression, was met with expulsion tactics which made use of the courts and internal procedures later resulting in the kind of post-conflict climate that left many staff, students and workers traumatised and several unwilling to return.
What does this say about how we are presently dealing with conflict? Who are our institutions defending against? More interestingly, what is it exactly that they are protecting? What could a community forum premised on restorative justice have meant for that post-conflict space and the potential for creating conditions for more supportive environments and social movements standing against gender-based violence?
Looking back to 2010 we recall the rector of the University of Free State taking a decision to pursue a path of reconciliation for the “Reitz Four” white students who racially abused and physically humiliated five black workers. While Jansen’s decision was heavily criticised during its time I feel somehow that this case, when juxtaposed with the handling of student-worker protests, demonstrates quite well the contradictions of South Africa’s tortured relationship with “forgiveness”. Whose innocence and participation in South Africa is treated with care, political tact and humanising character? Who is consistently described as violent, barbaric and criminal? Who is the face of violence and who the face of innocence? Who is reconciliation for?
In thinking through what a restorative justice process could look like for the case of “students” vs “private property”, we are provided with the perfect scenario to scrutinised the problematic binary present in our founding TRC, that of the “victim” and “perpetrator”. Who is to take responsibility for the conditions of the society that students and workers must respond to? How are student-worker movements’ horizontal structures going to grow in ways more accountable to the community whose issues they champion? How do we create space for constructive criticism and difference of opinion instead of blunt condemnation that gets us nowhere closer to the resolution of our problems?
By now you’re probably wondering, “When is restorative justice applicable and who gets to decide?” This is precisely the gamble of demanding such a process from our public universities, particularly 20 years since the establishment of the TRC and 40 years on from the youth uprisings of 1976.
The rejection of this request, I would wager, would send a strong message to the youth of 2016: Dialogue is reserved for the powerful. Reconciliation is something that happened to white people, for white comfort, in protection of white privilege and was facilitated by the corroborating black elite that never truly believed in restorative justice to begin with. This of course isn’t to say that by granting it the old processes would be seen in a more positive light – no, supporting this decision could provide space for us to turn the corner and centre our efforts and resources on a healing project that focuses unashamedly on the most vulnerable in our communities.
If the Shackville TRC is established, there do exist, of course, very real risks of co-option and more devastatingly the possibility that a national precedence will not be set and protesters in elite spaces become humanised where the others remain trapped in a cycle of securitisation and reaction. With this caution in mind it is essential that if this idea is to sediment it travel as quickly as possible to the institutions most affected and most in need of a space to come to grips with what has passed and what undoubtedly is yet to come.
The events of “Shackville” with the burning of paintings in particular have become the go-to caricatures of the now barbaric students; it is interesting to me that somehow the racialised violence at the University of Free State during a rugby match in February less than a week after Shackville somehow failed to occupy public memory in the same way. Are the paintings humanised and more valuable than the lives of the black students burning them? Where is the space for critical reflection on this? Is there space to contest the boundaries of personhood and the apparent sanctity of private property rights?
The ShackvilleTRC should be seen, I believe, as an opportunity to turn the page on the events of 2015/16 in a manner that enables us collectively to look forward with more certainty. I unashamedly hope that such a process would repeal the pending expulsions on students who simply cannot afford to be discarded by our institutions and in doing so demonstrate that while the conflicts of today remain unresolved, the opportunities for tomorrow’s freedom hinge on those who are willing to risk their comfort for change, but crucially asserting the accountability to the community is essential and not one-dimensional.
Ultimately I propose that the youth of 2015/16 begin to call the bluff of our elders who have sold a story of South Africa that is so neat and triumphant that it is quickly losing its basis in reality – let’s see how much they really believed in the capacity and opportunities presented by the pursuit of restorative justice. DM