Now, as five o’ clock rolled around, the students were sitting sprawled across the street outside parliament, waiting for the politicians to come out.
The police were still there, standing in a line inside the gates, staring dully at the students. Nearby, an officer leaned awkwardly against a van as he strapped on plastic leg guards. He was very fat and looked disconsolate. My overwhelming impression was of an inept club cricketer padding up to try to dig his team out of a hole.
We had come down to drop off supplies for the students. Some glanced at us with the contempt revolutionaries reserve for bourgeois tourists. Others were surprisingly pleased. Perhaps they were just amused that we’d brought chocolate to a gunfight.
Nobody was going anywhere, and so we wandered around the back of parliament, towards the gardens of Government Avenue. Now, a deep peace lay over the afternoon. Squirrels posed for tourists. Doves burbled in the branches. A man snoozed on a bench.
Here, it was difficult to believe that the standoff was real; that this picturesque bonbon of a building was serving as a bunker for frightened incompetents. But then we turned off into the little alley behind the Slave Lodge – more tourists, more squirrels – and walked straight into 1985.
The riot police had their backs to us. Beyond them, students sang and taunted. On the peripheries, stragglers were being picked up. I watched a young woman being marched into a van; she weighed about 50kg but apparently she required three men wearing body armour and carrying shotguns to escort her.
A loudhailer shrieked and an officer started yapping orders into it. His voice was distorted, echoing off the buildings around the square, but we could make out the gist. Disperse. Arrest. Fifteen minutes. Fokkoff or else. Why? Because we have rubber bullets and instructions from inside parliament and all you’ve got is a half an education and 20 years of student debt.
A ripple passed down the line of police – small gestures, anxious glances – and then they sprang the trap: stun grenades, a baton charge, raised shotguns. I heard the crack-crack of rubber bullets being fired. The students broke and scattered but quickly regrouped further down the street to turn and raise their middle fingers and to cross their arms over their heads.
And that’s when I realised what was happening.
The police were clearing an escape route.
We watched them try to escape the future.
Our leaders were too frightened to go out the front, where all those savage arts and commerce and microbiology students were waiting to attack them with weapons like logic and honesty; and so they were sliding out the back.
There was a crescendo of chatter on the police radios. The gates swung open and the first of the BMWs crept out.
We stood and watched them in their gleaming R2-million getaway cars, our faces reflected in tinted windows. We watched them flee the people who are going to run this country in 30 years. We watched them try to escape the future.
It would have been a terribly depressing moment, but just then we met that future.
Both of the young women were students and, as is sometimes the case with people whose minds have not yet calcified, they were comfortable holding complexities. They believed that a degree was the only way out of poverty, but they also knew that a degree was no guarantee of anything in a hopelessly underperforming economy. They respected their parents but resented them for not keeping their party accountable. They were ready to fight, but believed that discipline and non-violence would win the day.
On one point, though, they were unwilling to compromise. The ANC, their parents’ party, had to go.
“Don’t these people know that we’re trained to assess information critically?” asked the one as some apparatchik skedaddled past us.
“No,” said her friend. “They don’t. They think we’re as ignorant as they are. They think they’re fooling us but they’re just insulting us.”
“So stupid,” said the first, smiling into the impassive face of a passing dignitary. “All they had to do was listen and show solidarity. So easy. But now they’re done.”
Over the last two weeks South African students have taught me how little I know, perhaps how little any of us know. I’ve read authoritative voices explaining why there is plenty of money and why there is none. I’ve learned that countries are doomed without education, and that countries with weak education can enjoy booming economies. I’ve heard politicians promise that they have a plan to fix the mess made by their total inability to plan.
I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. But I have a feeling that if those two women are anywhere near parliament in the coming years, maybe, just maybe, we might be okay.