Enemies of the State?
The sounds of stun grenades echo through the otherwise empty university campus streets and parking lots. Police armed in riot gear carrying tall clear shields and arriving in armoured trucks that arrive one after the other to corner the chorus of singing protestors.
The sounds of rubber bullets pierce through the campus in the silence of the night, the darkness here defeats the glow of the camera flashes that once gleaned brightly – eye like – reminding the police that the world is watching.
How did we get here? – I heard many students ask in different ways from different spaces across our city, Cape Town. From the castle-like corridors of the ivory towers of the University of Cape Town, my temporary home, to the once acclaimed “University of the Left” – the University of Western Cape among others around us, we collectively ascended (if not descended) into a tremendous storm of political energy grinding our institutions to a halt. The students, staff and workers demanded, in essence, a commitment of a different kind of future, clumsy, clouded and spontaneous – yet powerful, clear and historic. Simply put our society demands change.
Rounds of national protests against exploitative labour brokering practices at universities on #October6 saw the beginnings of an organic national non-partisan movement to strengthen the long standing calls in local campuses. At the same time debates surrounding the differences between the different conceptualisations of “Decolonisation” and “Transformation” (see podcast)) had begun to consolidate as the heat from the initial bursts of the #RhodesMustFall movement had made their way across the country which provided the backdrop for the root contenstations of ideas that formed the undercurrent of the tidal wave that swept the nation.
As October had begun to grow old, 2015 quickly became the year where students at historically white universities had reached a point where the kinds of radical action that have forever been familiar at historically black intuitions had now become part of their popular imagination and regular practice.
The call from the student activists from the University of Witswaterstrand in Johannesburg for “Free Education” – resulting in the popular social movement #FeesMustFall – saw hundreds and thousands of students come together from various political affiliations to demand the immediate realisation of “Free Education” as a matter of principle. In a chain reaction that moved as sharply as an electric current, university campus after campus joined the growing call for immediate change.
The tactics from the mass based movements, while simple, appeared revealing as a means through which young people across the country were articulating their distrust and dissatisfaction with the existing structures and hierarchies that currently control our public institutions. Vice Chancellors and their management teams at various institutions were routinely cornered by hundreds of students who refused to let their “leaders” leave until their demands had been met.
As the mass movements picked up steam with students and workers (in many cases) in tow the universities’ swiftly prepared to pull a trigger by escalating through the courts and serving movements and student activists with court interdicts as a step towards intimidation into silence and subsequently as means through which police force could be exercised to restore “order”.
Endurance and frustration had become the name of the game as the authority, legitimacy and powers of these institutions had been tested and pressed by mass action day after day – unwaveringly. Great successes and agreements that might previously have been hard to imagine had quickly become the order to the day as hour after hour each university had begun to release student-management agreements with principle commitments to what was beginning to look like the start towards a bigger push towards the state.
It wasn’t long before the rigid and static structures of the universities – with their council’s and senates (filled to the brim with Old white men, of course) – had begun to repeal and dilute the radical voice and intention coming from the various mass based movements as they sought desperately and obsessively to bring control back to their campuses.
Looking at my home institution, I recall clearly how the start of the #FeesMustFall negotiations and so called management “hostage” situations escalated to a point where protestors had been caught in a standoff with a shell-shocked management team who summoned the police and fled their then occupied administration building. Peaceful songs and seated students surrounded by excitable journalists chanted into the night as police vehicles surrounded the occupation. Without provocation the police continued to grow in numbers and prepared their batons and canisters of tear gas before our eyes. Students doused their scarves and shirts with water in anticipation of what was to come and in a matter of minutes that felt like hours the scene had shifted from song and solidarity to the smoke of stun grenades, the sounds of running feet on tarmac and the shouting of names of young people who had just been arrested.
This was just the beginning. This was only one campus.
This happened countless times, with unchecked unthinking violence that we will likely never hear of – much less get a chance to address.
As the protests wore on we visited other campuses, the scenes on the ground never ceased to amaze me. The levels of police and private security presence on campus grounds rose exponentially the further and further one retreated from the whiteness of the mountain that housed our own institution. Police dogs behind steel cages, tall white men in army gear with shot guns and rubber bullets strapped threatening across their chests which sat below the gleaming badges of the private security firms.
“Private Malitia” I thought, looking at them in the eye as they scoped out the group I walked along with. These thugs marched through campuses more prepared for war than any of the police I had seen before.. more threatening in their demeanour with capital and contract their only compass.. I began to wonder“What does it mean for public institutions to use armed private security as a last line of defence?”
“Do the private securities supersede the public order police in the eyes of our leaders? “Law and Order for whom and for what” I wonder..
The Marikana Dilemma.
The tragedy of Marikana and the logic underpinning the disastrous chain of events that led to the murder of mineworkers who stood steadfast in pursuit of a dignified living wage presented a dark exhibition into a “dilemma” that shall surely lie at the center of South Africa’s looming crisis. The “wildcat” strike that continued in spite of a conflict with the recognised labour union led to a stalemate with the employer who refused to negotiate with the group separately from the union. The dispassionate response from the mine owners sent the miners and state police into a fatal spiral of escalation that revealed vividly the relationship between capital, the state and anti-black, anti-poor violence.
Now, in the context of the #FeesMustFall #EndOutsourcing protests I can’t help but note the similarities in the ways that the existing university management structures respond to pressure groups that exist outside of the “recognised” structures. When the university refuses to negotiate with any workers or student-worker coalitions that exist beyond the unions and when the protestors consistently undermine the authority and existence of student representative councils (nationwide) we must surely begin to ponder the question..
Are we quickly approaching the climax of our own Marikana Dilemma?
Are we doomed into a cycle of despondency as the calls from the ground grow increasingly impatient and distrustful of failed and tired leadership? .. More crucially.. Will this despondency be resolved by creativity or state/private sponsored violence?
Time will tell.
National Key points
The marches on the Union Buildings in Pretoria and on Parliament in Cape Town at the height of the #FeesMustFall #EndOutsourcing mobilisation have sparked tense and urgent discussions nationwide. There is little doubt, speaking as someone who witnessed the breaking past the gates of Parliament, which the state had been taken by surprise at the size and energy of the spontaneous protest that had evolved that fateful Wednesday. Arrests and rumours of “treason” lingered through the aftermath of a day that was marred by confusion stun grenades, riots and rubber bullets as protestors were pushed back through town on their way towards the trains.
The paranoia that had begun to circulate surrounding the focus on national key points by the mass movements in corners of the country must surely be read in the context of a country whose levels of inequality and placing in history provides ample suggestion that massive civil unrest in this country is not far from being a reality should drastic action to change our course not be taken quickly.
It must be said, firmer now than ever before that the calls from the students and workers clearly go beyond the logistics and book-balancing of individual campuses. There is an opportunity to redefine the very nature of public institutions in South Africa as we know it – to shift the very foundations of economic logic that for too long have permitted the exploitation of other human beings for the sake of prestige and profit for Europeans and their diaspora communities.. but in order for that to happen serious class and gendered contradictions emerging from these movements would have to be resolved if we are to ever reach critical mass. The focus and fascination by the public and the media with the daily developments of the historically white institutions erases the life and death battles at less resourced institutions that are also clearly subject to higher levels of state/private sponsored violence, this obstacle while not insurmountable presents a challenge that shall surely be among the key determining factors in what is setting up to be the long term continuation of our on-going struggle for freedom.
A luta continua.
So as the year runs towards a close I ponder through the accusations, are we..
Enemies of the state?
I wonder what that even means?
As I write this flinching at the sounds of police sirens whistling in the distance, wondering to what extent we are being monitored.. Wondering if this will all be worth it.. Wondering if the guilt of having being afforded the chance to study where I am will be repaid with justice for all (if not just more).
While there are many things I do not know, there is one thing I’m clear about.. Right now, in one of the most unequal states in the world, it’s the duty of each and every one of us to be..
Enemies of the status quo