Defend Truth


A burning desire to set the record straight on student anger

Pearl Pillay is a director at Youth Lab and is studying for her Masters degree in Political Studies at Wits University.

Dinner conversations and small talk became quite interesting this week, with the student movement dominating much of the conversation. However, it was not the usual suspects this time – Wits and other universities with a paler complexion have not been on the news cycle recently, at least not for protesting. This time, it was the University of KwaZulu-Natal that took centre stage and, because (most of) our media is impeccably consistent, it must mean something was set on fire.

It was a small section of a library this time and, true to form, people banded together in classic Rainbow Nation-style lamentations of futures burnt to a crisp and condemnation of the hooligans who trampled on Mandela’s legacy and so on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sad that books were burnt. Here are my sadness receipts: I have five library cards and I had spent so much time at the Exclusive Books sale the other week, people started thinking I worked there. I think it’s safe to say that I really like books. Remember my receipts while you read the rest of this piece.

We need to have a conversation about this idea that students at UKZN woke up the other morning and decided that it would be fun to burn something down. The burning of buildings, particularly at institutions like UKZN, are not random acts of violence, as so many would have us believe. In fact, UKZN has been shut down since mid-August, but we only seem to take notice when something burns down.

Students have attempted to make their grievances heard, both through student representatives as well as management, all of which fell on deaf ears, because ultimately, the management of universities like this one fundamentally disagree with the seemingly radical idea that students know what they want, and are capable of making a sound argument for it. University management has proven, time and time again, that the only language they respond to is fire, and students, as smart as they are, have become fluent in it.

We constantly hear universities talk about the need for constructive engagement, the need for non-violence and the importance of trust, yet a few weeks ago, students in Johannesburg teased a university with the threat of a shutdown and the university responded with a parade of police vans the very next day – despite there not being an actual protest, not to mention the collection of interdicts that seem to be piling up across the country.

At UKZN, the administration brought in private security as well as our friendly neighbourhood trigger-happy SAPS to assist with the already vibrant campus security – a typical student-management engagement session.

These universities have already communicated the idea that students are criminals, and should be treated as such. It’s been reported that a student at UKZN was raped this week by a person who is supposed to protect and uphold the law. Students have been tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets and had their residences searched by armed men, and instead of having a conversation about the brutality with which both police and university management have treated students, we’ve spent our time crying over this library.

We value buildings more than we value people. We hang on to clichés about the library servicing the poor students (no, poor students don’t even have access to the university) and how the university will now have to spend money fixing the library instead of offering free education (insurance is a real thing) because we refuse to think about how broken this system is if it pushes intelligent people to use destruction as a means of engagement. 

We decide on the legitimacy of a protest based on the class of student protesting and we offer our support based on how pale the history of a university is. In doing so, we also make assumptions about the ability of these students to make sense of their own protest.

Pale universities are hailed as home to intellectuals who are fed up with an oppressive system; everyone else is seen as backward, ungrateful, entitled youths. Had this been that university in Cape Town or the one in Johannesburg, we would have all rallied together to talk about the new brand of fearless student leaders, we would have done nice magazine spreads and radio interviews and we most certainly would not have branded them as uneducated thugs (Facebook people, I’m looking at you).

Those of us who live inside social media are experts in policing how these students should voice their concerns because we don’t have to experience the violence that comes with having to be young, poor and black in this country. We live in a country where even the places meant to educate have been designed to exclude and we are expected to fight this with vigils and sit-ins.

There is a bottom line here, and it is that the life of a black student in South Africa is an impossible one. When you exist within a system that has been designed to eliminate you, how else are you supposed to respond if not with violence? The very idea that education is a commodity, to be consumed only by those who can afford it, is violent, and that’s the space students are embedded in.

Both the university and the government have been inadequate in addressing student needs. Universities spew out rhetoric and the government sets up commissions to distract us. The country is burning and those in power are trying to douse the flames with paper towels – and in the meantime, young people are expected to fight racism and sexism, get educated, get employed and save the economy and never, ever be angry at a system that makes this impossible.

And if they do get angry, we brand them as thugs, because we refuse to consider that their anger might be justified. We defend our inability to move beyond our own bias by invoking Nelson Mandela as emotional blackmail, fixated on the Brand South Africa version of him because we’d rather not think about the lived experiences of young people in a country in which that Mandela is dead.

We wax lyrical about the struggle against apartheid, forgetting that everything we learnt about resistance, we learnt from the very same people shooting at us now.

We cry about libraries and not about a system that tells us that our voices only matter when something is set on fire and as long as we do this, anything and everything will burn. DM


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