By Liezille Jacobs
Dear Dr Bonginkosi Emmanuel “Blade” Nzimande,
What an interesting time to live in South Africa! I am writing this letter slowly because it is very hard for me to fathom that we might have another 1976 on our hands. Do you need a reminder, lest you forgot?
On June 16 1976 student protests continued until the end of a very violent year. Minister Nzimande, student protests should never be pigeonholed as being violent. The police force (I say force, because I cannot see them providing a service) gives this impression. The current 2015 national student protest is an action expressing disapproval of and objection to fee increases for 2016.
Honourable Minister, I am proposing, as a community psychology scholar, that you go on a road trip immediately to visit campuses around South Africa and hold university-wide “community conversations” with students. Keep the lines of communication open. But first, gain control of your “crowd” — the police force.
The #FeesMustFall Campaign, according to crowd psychology, could bear reference to the case of 1976. I’m not suggesting that the #FeesMustFall campaign will last this long. Yet, what I am experiencing now, after watching the state’s reaction to the national student protests is fear. The kind of fear you can taste. Anger. The kind of anger that almost blinds me. Frustration. I feel absolutely frustrated. Why?
I grew up on the grounds of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) because my father worked there for 15 years as a residence manager. Coming from a working-class family, I experienced the familiar “Hek Toe” protests at the beginning of each academic year. The sense of community and cohesion of the student body is as solid now as it was 39 years ago. #IamUWC so as a psychology graduate from Udubs, having witnessed the frustration-aggression of UWC students over the years, the current national student’s protests come as no surprise. There had been simmering tensions relating to fees hikes for too long … the pressure cooker is on.
Violence and injury prevention is a top national priority in South Africa and is an integral part of the country’s National Development Plan: Vision 2030. Yet police brutality is rife. Many students are injured already. There is a need for a strategic approach to limit violent police intervention, which usually is a springboard to violent protests. In spite of that, student protests matter. In South Africa student protests are normalised. Yet, protests are not supposed to be violent. I have the right to protest! We all hope the #FeesMustFall protest is successful so that it de-legitimises current ineffective higher education policies and imposes reduction of fees onto power holders.
Should we start a new hashtag? #BladeMustAid. Our story has headlined globally. #IamSouthAfrica and so are you Honourable Minister. I suggest that we use the media spotlight to our advantage and I suggest that you start up a South African student fundraising campaign which could fund students who are disadvantaged and already struggling to pay this year-end’s fees. You have the power to aid. Let’s rewrite our history — #BetterTogether.
Dr Liezille Jacobs is a senior scientist at the Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit and South African Medical Research Council.