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Student Protests: A lecturer’s perspective on resentments

Viroshan Naicker, Rhodes University

This morning I stood toe to toe and eye to eye with a student who wanted to enter a lecture that was in progress. Unwilling to compromise the col- league who was teaching his class, I stopped the student and asked to look at his student card. I asked it in a neutral, quiet voice but the atmosphere around universities in South Africa is so charged, volatile and divided that the situation escalated into a confrontation. A few minutes later I was shaking with anger at an incident that cannot, and must not happen in a place of learning. So I’ve spent most of the day reflecting on that event, and have asked myself why do I want to disconnect from that student, and his cause?

The pervasive emotion that has driven student protests in this country over the last few weeks has been one of deep resentment. There is a sense of ill will directed at the university establishment, leadership, lecturers and sta . Naturally, this resentment is justi ed, all resentments are, aren’t they? They are held for good reasons: University degrees are highly prized in a competative job-market, and South Africa’s economics have made life increasingly dicult for fee payers who are struggling to keep up with in ation. There is a large divide at university level between the haves and the have nots. 

Here is the thing, we can keep blaming and keep dividing and creating the sense of disenfranchised, powerless separation that comes with our various interpersonal resentments: protesters towards non-protesters, academics toward protesters, academics towards academics and the general dissatisfaction with our government or we can stop.

In holding resentment from being wronged, harassed, and permanently damaged by \others” we carry those hurts around with us. We take the poison, so that our bullies might be harmed. And, we use it to justify anything. Look around at the destruction that has been wreaked. Setting res on university campuses means fewer venues and fewer facilities, and so fewer places for lecturers to lecture and for students to learn. Yet, protesters ask (at Rhodes at least) for impunity because they were just \venting” their resentments. 

We compromise ourselves, our world and our values when we act out our ill will. The bene ts of agreement and solidarity, the seductive sense of power and of getting your own back are ripe and beautiful, and rotten. When will we feel the shame of the costs? The shame of the harm that is being created 1 all around us. The price that is being paid by the student who had to drop out this morning because it is all too much, another who had an asthma attack due the stress of a disrupted lecture, and the rubber bullets, stones and broken bottles of last week. How long will we still pay the price? How long will we hold against-ness? 

If the universities of this country shut down, even temporarily, there will be immense repercussions for students, sta , protesters and non-protesters. If Rhodes University would close down for a semester, a town like Grahamstown will collapse economically and thousands of people amongst them, the poorest of the poor, in the Eastern Cape will su er for it. Next years pharmacists won’t graduate on time, so their skills will be missed in the pharmacies around South Africa. Talented academics will leave and go to industry, and the downward spiral will continue. We are in deep denial if we think that there are simple solutions to complex problems. A cry like #FeesMustFall is a symptom of a complex issue of South Africa’s manifold education and economic crisis. But these are problems that cannot be solved reactively, with demands, bullying and fear. They can only be solved creatively by building the skills required in order to graduate and by creating an economy that can support free education. And, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that someone else will solve it for us or that it will be easy. 

Each time I step out into a lecture venue I receive the gift of my students’ attention, and its a gift to them of skills that I have dedicated 23/33rds of a lifetime to learning. It is this precious process that has been disrupted, and is being disrupted at our universities. 

So to the student I wanted to disconnect from this morning: If you and I stop exchanging our gifts, then are we not both lesser for it? We both pay a heavy price for closing our hearts o with our resentments. It’s time to move this situation forward at university level with leadership and integrity, heart to heart instead of eye for eye. And the only way for a lecturer, like myself, to do that is to go back to the chalkboard.