Gwen Ngwenya
Gwen Ngwenya

#RhodesMustFall: Universities are crumbling under the hegemony of youth morality

The burning of assets at UCT is not solely about the vandalism of property, but rather the depreciation of the sum total of parts that make an education valuable. It is safe to say that many students do not want knowledge primarily for knowledge’s sake; if that were the case then many more might consider autodidactism. It is the degree that has value, and that value is the sum of many parts, the greater being transferred credibility.

When people ask “Which university did you go to?”, it is a collection of many other questions that get answered by inference: Who taught you? What did they teach? Are they the best at what they teach? Who were your classmates? Did your classmates provide an intellectually stimulating environment? Is it an environment conducive for learning and the dissemination of knowledge? Who does the university attract? What is the calibre of person who says “This place is worthy of my time”? It is the sum of all these parts and more that gives value to the currency that is called a degree. Some currencies are worth less than others because they answer these questions less credibly. What begins to be incinerated along with the artwork and the buses is the ability of our universities to transfer credibility to their students.

The youth are the future, a trite truism
One word stands out in the analyses of the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall movements: “Hope.” Where it is not mentioned explicitly it appears in the tone. Just this week Sisonke Msimang wrote “Still, given everything I have witnessed this past year, I am hopeful.” One can, perhaps, remain hopeful if the demands and actions of students are not fully examined. Their actions have included blocking access to universities and thus forcibly preventing those who do wish to learn (including many black poor students) from doing so, they have halted administrative processes by occupying buildings, and they have, at its worst, destroyed property and resorted to violence. Yet even if we place the methods aside, the ends of protest are not unassailable. The youth movements have not won in the war of ideas, but mostly because we have been too coy to declare it.

In The Art of Rhetoric Aristotle examines the character of men in regard to a variety of attributes including their ages. He speaks of youth, prime and old age. Not all of Aristotle’s characterisations of youth are favourable, but those favourable attributes seem to hold as true today as they did for the ancients. A public belief in the beauty of youth, that the youth are “sweet-natured”, “warm”, “ambitious” and that they embody hope, “for hope is of the future”. Despite it being the tritest of truisms, few are ashamed to say that “the youth are the future”. This might have been true of societies with short life spans but increasingly the reality is that the future belongs to us all. Thus if we all have a vested interest then we must interrogate the plans the youth have of the future with equal scrutiny.

And in so doing demolish the ageist morality that assigns righteousness to youth.

Is it a defensible cause?
The question of whether student demands for free education, accommodation and the end of outsourcing etc represent just causes may cause us to stray too far philosophically. It asks of us to be on the same understanding of what is justice. But perhaps we can more articulately engage in a conversation of whether it is a defensible cause?

A police nyala near the shack erected by the Rhodes Must Fall movement during a protest on February 16, 2016. (Gallo)

A police nyala near the shack erected by the Rhodes Must Fall movement during a protest on February 16, 2016. (Gallo)

In this interrogation we can start with the stage the youth movements have chosen as the locus of protest. Is the university the right and appropriate target? Here we might look at the role of the university vs the role of the state. I believe the students would lose an investigation into the whether they have zoned in on the correct area of protest. Such an interrogation into a defensible cause would ask it to be defended from first principles. This would mean asking why should university education be free. The answer cannot be the freedom charter says so. The freedom charter may have got some things wrong. We need to ask of the students if there cannot be drawn a distinction between good outsourcing and bad outsourcing? Is efficiency to be desired in the university? Are we still committed to the progressive realisation of socio-economic goals or is there now another nexus of ideals and reality?

It should not be of any significance whether a cause is driven by a political party or whether it is free from party political influence. But this seems to matter to some, and part of the appeal of the current student movements is that they brought together the youth from across political divides. It shows our obsession with race that a racially diverse protest should be interpreted as a politically diverse one.

Free education and the end to outsourcing are longstanding pillars of the South African Students’ Congress and contained in their document titled Strategic Perspectives on Transformation. Yet we want to buy into the political transcendence of these ideas even as protesters march emblazoned with party symbols. Again the origin of ideas matter little as far as I am concerned in determining their defensibility, but if the point is to be made it needs to be made convincingly and it has not.

The coveted title of activist
The righteousness of the demands of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements need to be given fresh interrogation. Otherwise having a cause becomes in and of itself the thing that is praised. The goal then is activism and the cause merely a vehicle. I grew weary of the social media updates of students, some peers showing off their battle scars. It is evident in the portraits taken wistfully in a cell or at the back of a police vehicle, and pictures of scars that were barely more horrific than falling of a bicycle. The thinking is now I have been arrested, now I have a wound, and lo and behold that wound bleeds — I am an activist.

As long as there is intimidation, violence and the occupation of property there will need to be security to restore order. And a growing number of student “activists” will use both the rational and irrational use of force as badges of honour. This is not a doomsday scenario about the youth but I question any reason to be unusually optimistic about the country’s future leadership. The youth is as unwieldy a force for good and bad as it has ever been.

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    • Aragorn Eloff

      Your entire article can essentially be condensed to “I do not want to be convinced, and so I am not.” “The student activism does not map to my liberal democratic open opportunity society mindset” would also distill your position well. Unfortunately for you, any actual claims you’ve made – have the students chosen the right locus of protest (as though activism is limited to a single locus)? are they stopping their poor peers from getting an education, etc. – have been responded to in detail by the student movement.

      You’ll make a great DA employee one day with your neoliberal discourse of self-entrepreneurship and responsibilization wherein everything is reduced to notions of ‘human capital’, ‘currency’, ‘value’, ‘depreciation’ and so forth. They’ll especially appreciate your highly distorted analysis of power, wherein only protesters can be guilty of “intimidation, violence and the occupation of property”. Perhaps you should spend less time in the Greek agora and more time actually engaging the difficult questions RMF, etc. have raised if you’d like to present an informed, nuanced and unbiased critique.

    • Pieter Schoombee

      Criminal vandals will get neither sympathy nor respect.

    • Trevor Watkins

      Spoken like an older person. That is high praise indeed.

    • Rory Short

      Gwen I think you have a point here. “In this interrogation we can start with the stage the youth movements have chosen as the locus of protest. Is the university the right and appropriate target?”

      I do not think so. I think this position comes from an unspoken assumption, and acceptance of South Africa as a sectionally divided society. That does not augur well for our future because it is just a continuation of the general mindset that has bedevilled our development as a nation in the past.

      What should be addressed is the the current misuse of power by those in power who are using that power not to address the needs of the whole of society but only to serve very limited and sectional interests.

    • Nuance

      Thank you!