Defend Truth


Where is the middle ground in South African debate?


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

It’s hard to have a debate these days that doesn’t descend into name-calling or us-versus-them dichotomies. It’s hard to find any middle ground. Nowhere is this more evident than in the increasingly polarised #FeesMustFall protests.

Animus. A word with a twin meaning. The Romans used it to refer to the very core of a person, one’s ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. In today’s lexicon we use it in its original form to indicate what might well be related to its original meaning but has a far harsher under-tone. It is used to express a rather more personal ‘ill will or hostility’ towards someone.

It is a word which sprung to mind often during the past week’s engagement on #FeesMustFall. South Africans, however, tare almost inured to deeply fractious public debate.

Increasing polarisation and factionalism within the ANC, along with our inability to deal with the past adequately has, in recent years, led to language becoming used more and more as an instrument of division. There are many examples of the violence of language. ANCYL leader Collen Maine recently called for people to ‘take up arms for Zuma’ after ‘state capture’ allegations were brought to the fore. How could we forget the famous line, ‘we will kill for Zuma’? Zuma himself perpetuates the violence of language with his ‘mshini wam!’ cry. It all creates a toxic cesspool where dialogue becomes difficult.

We have seen strains of intolerance and misunderstanding in the #FeesMustFall debate almost from the very beginning in the provocative and often arcane language of ‘white tears’ and ‘settler’. It is found in the flinging of human faeces meant to symbolise the structural inequalities in our society and then the destruction of property that some say serves ‘white, colonial interests’. Added to this, our police seem to have learnt very little about public order policing in a democratic society and also since Marikana. Still others have been trapped into simply denouncing ‘all’ students as marauding law-breakers. Name-calling and baiting of students has exacerbated tense situations. Or there is the silence of privilege that might sometimes be as violent as the spoken word.

This week as university shutdowns became a more imminent reality, we saw the public discourse already so profoundly brittle descend even further. But this time it was the animus that was far more striking. Increasingly, there seems only to be space for those ‘for’ and ‘against’, and a notion that supporting the right to education must mean uncritical support for students whose strategies have often been misguided, disrespectful and self-indulgent.

The fundamental question must surely be how do we balance rights in this time of crisis? We live in a democracy. It is far from perfect with its structural inequality and deeply embedded ‘ways of doing things’. Our institutions, universities included, are reflective of the broader national (and indeed international) struggle for equality which is complicated by South Africa’s own peculiar historical complexity. However, while the right to protest is firmly enshrined in our Constitution, there is a concomitant right of others not to participate in such protests and to associate freely. We can surely all agree on that?

The ‘rule of law’ argument seems an unpopular one to make right now. But our Constitutional democracy is all about the balancing of rights; in this case, one’s freedom to associate and protest without intimidation and the right to education. Fallists have argued that they are taking on the fight for everyone. Yet how do we balance that with the rights of others who want to complete the year?

At Wits, students voted in large numbers to return to class. There may well have been inaccuracies in precise numbers but the majority of students want to complete the academic year. At the University of Cape Town (UCT), thousands of students marched to keep the university open. So, the balance has to be found between peaceful protest and the right to education. Given that ours is a democracy, violent protest is a difficult strategy to justify. UCT’s medical school took a unilateral decision to suspend classes for 1st to 3rd years and a discussion is happening about whether that might be extended to 4th and 5th years. The latter are crucial years as students have more patient interaction by then. Is it not fair to say that a further shut down would impact on the rights of the majority of UCT medical students to education and the rights of the communities they serve to healthcare?

There have been further splits in opinion on the use of security on campuses. It is unpopular to suggest keeping the university open with increased security to ensure the academic year is completed. The division escalates when the police do not exercise restraint and the pleas to shut down rise. The past week saw a Wits student leader shot 13 times in the back. That use of force is disproportionate and unacceptable. Where is the restraint?

But we have to have the conversation regarding security on campus. Indications are that where there is none, violence still continues. This was seen on Friday at UCT where police and private security took a ‘hands off’ approach, and 40 students/ protesters with sticks hounded students out of the computer labs and threatened cleaning staff.

The animus attached to pleas to secure venues has taken the form of very personal attacks on the integrity of otherwise decent men and women. So, the fact that Adam Habib, the Wits vice-chancellor has been pilloried in the way that he has, is an example of such animus at play. Labelling is an easy luxury, as is name-calling. So, someone becomes ‘Habib’s Goebbels’, a ‘liberal’ or ‘militaristic’. Defending Habib’s right to be treated with respect at the Wits Peace Accord is immediately seen as choosing to stand ‘with’ authoritarian management and brutal police and against the poor.

Where, one wonders, is the middle ground here – between wanting the university to stay open and having to call for police restraint, and balancing rights? How does university management isolate the criminal and outside element which has undermined the #FeesMustFall movement? It is certainly clear at UCT that outsiders are playing an outsized and often violent role in the protests.

It has also become easy to romanticise this moment as our very own ‘Arab spring’. There is little evidence of sufficient strategy or coherence from the #FeesMustFall movement to suggest this might lead to an overthrowing of the state. Yet, its disruption might give rise to a destructive paralysis as government dithers. The current trenchant position of protesters creates an environment in which negotiation has become impossible. Yet somehow, the academic project must continue. What is worrying is the casual approach amongst some that losing a year is acceptable given the larger issues at stake. That is a privileged position to take. For the middle class student, being at home is relatively simple. For the poor student, it’s the difference between graduating and earning a living so there is food on the table. There are no choices for the poor in this. That is another side of the conversation we do need to have, but without the animus.

It is wishful thinking that those universities that choose to shut down now will magically reopen in January. It is simply delaying the inevitable and that is a continuous cycle of shutdowns and violence, coupled with decline. The state has the most crucial role to play in this political moment yet it remains too weak and compromised to do so. Vice-chancellors have been hung out to dry and seek their own messy solutions. At this point the only way to keep the university open and not lose a year seems to be by ‘blended learning’ and increasing security so exams are not compromised and libraries can stay open.

That does not mean a ‘free pass’ for police brutality, however. The alternative is that students agree to complete the year without violence while negotiations continue. Security is thus withdrawn. That seems unlikely, given the disorganisation and more trenchant stance we have witnessed amongst students. It also feels almost too late to try that option again. Students now have far more to lose if they are seen to capitulate to management’s demands. Those are the stark choices we face in the very short-term if there is to be a balancing of rights. The longer-term solutions to access (fees) and decolonisation of curricula must happen, but all the actors need to ensure that by then we still have fine universities left to save.

Often the demands of immediate decision-making mean our thinking is rushed and unclear. The animus we have witnessed in the past week contributes only to a lack of clarity and creates unnecessary foes.

For those of us invested in South Africa and its future, who will not or cannot contemplate leaving, or for those students who will not have the option of studying abroad, it is vital that we clear our heads of the ease with which animus comes. It might also mean considering short-term, imperfect solutions that would otherwise be undesirable and unpalatable in service of a greater cause. Universities are, after all, a public good. DM


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