When violent protests turned our bastilles of learning, such as UCT, Wits, UP and Stellies into militarised battlegrounds, the pundits worried that the institutions might suffer irreparable harm. “What if all the good academics left… or if all the libraries are burned to the ground by short-sighted fallists?”
Of course violent student protests are not new to South Africa. Unreported rage had been simmering at TUT, UWC and Rhodes long before the disruption of the tranquil Rhodes statue at UCT, which gripped the mainstream media’s attention. The popular imagination knew that the students in some parts were rowdy, but it was only when images trended on social media of Max Price being shoved, and Adam Habib sitting on the floor looking petrified, that student issues made the headlines nationally.
In the end the issue was framed as one of resource constraints, and the “no fee increase” dictat from the Union Buildings, was touted as a temporary solution. The student’s eventual mantra of “Free Decolonised Education” was drowned out by the technocratic maze of so-called dialogues that followed.
There was a worrying cultural trait that accompanied the #FeesMustFall movement. Not only were the fallists willing to use violence and vandalism, they preferred aggressive monologue to transformative dialogue. The so-called Higher Education National Convention, meant to resolve the issues, ended with chairs being thrown at fellow delegates and the conveners, shouting over the crowd, adjourned the meeting prematurely citing “disruption” and safety concerns.
This same cultural trait, essentially a form of ideological intolerance, has metastasised to other parts of our body politic. The National Dialogue convened by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and other civic groups ended in similar fashion, only this time disrupted by a mob of EFF militants. The recent meeting where Pravin Gordhan addressed students at UJ took a similar turn with attendees lecturing the minister about engagement, while angrily hurling racist generalisations at him, as a means to an end, to shore up their perceived right to ideological superiority. In the same vain, the disruption of the amaBhungane town hall by the BLF this week is only the most recent incident of a new increasingly popular form of home-grown fascism.
At the heart of freedom of expression lies freedom of thought and belief. For to engage in expression without reason and conviction, is to become a mindless slave. The BLF and EFF have allowed the expedience of political short-termism to lure them into this trap, in Parliament, in the streets and now in the public discourse. Only through reasoned conviction can true freedom of expression be enjoyed. But for reason to be robust, difference of opinion is required. This is why dictators are by definition ideological islands, fearing their opposition for a lack of depth in their own reasoned reply. Ironically it was Andile Mngxitama who called Julius Malema a dictator and ideologue when he left the EFF.
Further still, at the root of freedom of expression, lies the courage to allow one’s opponents and enemies to vocalise their views. Their free speech, not one’s own, is the reciprocal guarantor of freedom. By allowing them to test ones presuppositions, one guarantees the vigour of ones own ideology, for without debate ideology is mere bigotry. The fallists allowed their passion to overrun their reason and created a culture of intolerance, reserving the right to political voice only for those who agree with them. This is why their movement died. It was all heart and not enough mind.
Sadly, if ever there is a setting where passion and thought ought to coexist it is in our universities! Perhaps it is an indictment on the academy that the discourse could not be better embraced institutionally. Did we need rocks to be thrown and libraries burnt before we opened ourselves to new arguments and ideas, from which all books and learning ultimately germinate?
The intellectual life of our democracy is at risk. Not from students who want the suffocating effects of patriarchal legacies and colonial norms to be deconstructed. Our society is threatened by a pseudo-democratic culture that says, “we the angry people”, and gives the animated margin a platform, instead of saying “we the people”, engaging as equals in good faith.
Here I lay some of the blame at the media’s feet. Yes our media freedom is robust and somewhat of an anomaly in an otherwise propaganda-riddled continent. But, our media have focused so narrowly on “the story” and the personalities, that they have neglected the human cost of their actions. They have made so much of Andile’s shenanigans, Malema’s shenanigans and Jacob Zuma’s shenanigans, that the real story is lost. The real story is that these individuals have infected our public discourse with a new form of intolerance and delayed our aim of restoring dignity to all. They have normalized a project that demands material dignity at the expense of other forms. “Land or death”, ultimately means land by murder. That is not a just cause.
If apartheid was a clear violation of the rights of those it “othered”, an expression of pure evil, surely this strain of violent belligerence is pure evil as well? The story of the year is not the Gupta ATM-bombing of our SOEs. The story of the year is how South Africans have witnessed a cancerous fascism spreading from the ANCYL under Malema, to Parliament in the form of the EFF, to our campuses, eventually to Peter Bruce’s front door under the BLF banner, and is now making its return under Jacob Zuma, to some quarters of the ANC in the form of death threats. We have watched, and dare I say allowed, a small group of misleaders to teach our people hatred and intolerance, again.
Nelson Mandela said for a reason, “never, never and never again…” He understood that it was not going to be enough to say “never” just once. We see the same rhetorical form in sacred scripture when it says “verily, verily… I tell you”. The purpose of the repetition is to create emphasis. It serves to convey to the hearer the importance of what is about to follow. Without the repetition, one might mistakenly think, “this is just another lesson”. Thankfully, by repetition, the listening ear may be persuaded to pay closer attention than usual to the lesson about to be offered.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
So soon after apartheid we are witnessing the return of attitudes that justify oppressive language and oppressive violence. These attitudes threaten the fibre of our society. They threaten the efficacy of our universities and thereby our future. How can we think if we may not speak freely? How can we learn if we cannot argue respectfully? How can we live together as a common people if we do not recognise each other’s common humanity, as a premise for how we engage?
Malema, Mngxitama and Zuma are courting a black mamba whose venom will not spare them. What sets the black mamba apart from other snakes is its aggression. While other snakes will flee as a means to protect themselves against perceived enemies, the black mamba advances; fangs exposed, striking with a venomous “kiss of death”. What soon follows is paralysis and a painful demise. The string of dictators across post-Colonial Africa learned this lesson the hard way. Gaddafi was only the most recent to be killed at the hands of his own, by then, intolerant people. He won’t be the last.
The antidote to fascism is not fear or cowardice or politely being politically correct. The antidote is a resolute and vocal confrontation, a higher plane of rationality, of principle and dignity. The antidote is to say to these bullies” “No, you will not turn our public square into an anarchical brawl or command us as our chief. We are a people, not a brood of competing gangs. We are a society, not an army of your minions. These are the rules of engagement; respect, tolerance, fairness and ultimately, the law and the pursuit of justice. You will not impose your view, your perspective, your sense of moral superiority, or your dysfunction on our society. If you have an argument, make it plainly. We the people, will listen, will engage, will learn and will progress, alongside you, to a better future. We will not be intimidated, bullied, labelled or discouraged from our chosen path of inclusion and tolerance.”
The time has come for us to call out this new culture for what it is, a pretentious pro-poor black nationalism, masking at its heart a dangerous bloodthirsty fascism. DM
Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics.
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The Hindenburg had a smoking room.