Vanguard. A brave new world. Unprecedented violence. New lows of hooliganism.
If the rhetoric from both camps is anything to go by, the protests curdling South African universities are something entirely new. Even the campuses, familiar landmarks until recently, have been reimagined as entirely new spaces: enclaves on a new frontier, uncharted, open for capture by competing forces.
I’m sure that the last few weeks have been appallingly stressful for students and staff, with many plunged into situations and dilemmas they’ve never faced before. But as an outsider following the deluge of reports and tweets from the front lines, I must confess that much of it has looked strangely familiar. Instead of glimpsing terra incognita, I’ve simply seen our national crises and complexes acted out in microcosm.
For example: both the yawning chasm between rich and poor and the nasty tendency to tell the poor that they simply need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are present in the monstrous catch-22 faced by so many students. With youth unemployment at well over 60% and with no German-style vocational training available, they’ve been told that a degree is their only hope to earn money — but they don‘t have enough money to pay for a degree.
The parallels go on.
As our national conversations become more polarised and wrathful, I’ve seen budding despots “no-platform” people from speaking on campuses, refusing to listen to different views simply because they are different. And, as is often the case when dictators start flexing their muscles, I’ve seen blossoming thinkers try to keep intellectual and political spaces open, holding complicated, contradictory ideas in balance.
As the politicians continue to be paid vast sums for passing the buck, I’ve seen young apprentice politicians — the cabinet of 2040 — learning the dismal tricks of their trade. I’ve seen them test the power of angry, empty words; of directing righteous anger against the wrong targets.
The great politician has a genius for getting other people to make sacrifices that will advance his or her own career, and I’ve watched this handful of ministers-in-the-making bring other students’ lives to a standstill while surging to the front of the queue themselves, pushing into pole position for long and lucrative careers in government.
And finally, as big, organised money gets on with the business of making more money, I’ve watched moneyed students buying the space they need to get on with their work.
major lawsuits, even class actions, aren’t far off
(For now, the money is keeping calm and carrying on. But I suspect that major lawsuits, even class actions, aren’t far off. Money doesn’t like its reproductive functions being messed with.)
Beyond the campuses, the response to the protests has also been business as usual.
We’ve continued our endless fascination with tertiary education, blind as ever to the utter devastation in our primary and secondary schools that continues to grind our potential into the mud. We’ve retreated into extreme positions, branding the students as violent, entitled hooligans or as revolutionary geniuses who are our only hope for the future. We’ve been properly sucked into an “us good, them bad” position. In short, pretty much your average day in South Africa.
I’m not qualified to offer the tiniest shred of advice to students or academics on how to end this impasse or on where to find the cash or on what to do with it. But I do know that the current discussion — in which the universities are somewhere over there on the outskirts of town and the students are good or bad and that someone will do something and then we can all go back to complaining about Jacob Zuma — is not going anywhere.
That’s because the universities aren’t over there. They’re right here. The students are us. They’re a strand in the fabric of our society, and if they’re unravelling, then it suggests that the whole thing has already started looking a bit ropey.
Some are claiming that the burning of books, art and buildings is the first step in the implosion of our society. But I suspect they might be confusing cause and effect, and living under the misapprehension that, despite the odd hiccup here and there, South Africa is pootling along more or less in the right direction. Which is, of course, not the case.
This country is profoundly dysfunctional. That’s because it‘s not really a country. South Africa is an abandoned mine. Sure, there are livings to be made around the edges of the great, gaping hole, but it was always an exploitative venture with a finite lifespan, and now that the original exploiters have made their piles and buggered off, the place’s fundamental raison d’être is vague. We’re drifting, because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be now.
The students won’t show us the way forward. But they are showing us where we are, right now. And, grim as it seems, that’s a start.