Minister Jeff Radebe you are heading up the ministerial task team to resolve the crisis on our university campuses. Good, thank you. This is a step in the right direction. Students and champions of #FeesMustFall, you have taken up the challenge of agitating for a fundamental change in the future prospects of your generation of South Africans. Good, thank you. This is a necessary and important change which the country needs now. Vice-chancellors you have met with, spoken with, debated and negotiated with well meaning students (some not so well-meaning anarchists) and you have, so far, kept the institutions going amid an onslaught of disruption. Good, thank you for showing leadership and preserving these critical national assets.
But what has been done so far is not enough and time is running out.
Minister Radebe, the police are mishandling the situation and sowing the seeds of a future where young citizens hate the state, don’t trust the custodians of national security and throw the political newborn out with the bathwater. Minister Radebe, the police are an important arm of the state apparatus and their presence on campuses is understandable given the rocks and the fires. But minister, the blood that has now flowed and is going to flow will blind the eyes of the students to the solutions your task team will propose. The twelve bullet wounds on Shaeera Kalla’s back will be the graves for your plans unless you call off the attack dogs and reset the relationship of the students to the police.
Students, I get you. You are angry. You are tired. You are deserted by your parents calling you to yell “go back to class” and weary of your priests praying while you see men in riot gear in front of the towers where your former trusted teachers sit on the 11th floor. You have been brave but some of you have been stupid. What did you think would happen when you bust open a concrete dustbin and flung its jagged missiles towards the pillars of power. Your violent approach got the attention it was meant to, but it has also destroyed your collective reputation. Are you protesting or are you rioting? Are you studious citizens or basically unprofessional criminals. Put down the stones and pick up your pens. You are students after all, are you not? Fight using the law and the courts and the superiority of your minds. Be creative. Imagine a better system, then build it. Win the argument, not the street-fight. Every window you shatter is being replaced by a concrete ceiling of government defensiveness. Wise up before you defer your own future.
Vice-chancellors, I’m sorry it has come to this. You are no longer the executive leaders of comfortable ivory towers. You are the presiding officers over a revolution, the guidance counsellors of generational post-traumatic stress victims. Cometh the midnight hour, cometh daybreak – iF you have the leadership to set aside egos and the narrow goals of the academy for the broad goals of justice. Your task is not easy. I pray for you.
What will it take to create a table at which to sit?
What will we have to do in order to be able to talk?
Here are some suggestions:
1. The universities call off the police for 72 hours to provide space. We need air. Oxygen calms the mind and we need calm minds.
2. The students commit to non-violence and engagement for 72 hours. We need to think in terms of process rather than slogans. To walk out of this valley we have to first identify the summit.
3. The government commits for 72 hours to just to listen. Listen as children describe their anger. Listen as they show you their teeth and their branded T-shirts and their dreams.
After the 72 hours we can decide if another round of tit for tat is going to be helpful. I doubt any of us will think so.
No thoughtful South African wants a nightmare scenario where the universities collapse in 2018 and the regime changes three times in five years as the democratic centre explodes, while the parents wail at the open graves of Mandela’s grandchildren. No imbizo will put the country back together once we reach that point.
Can we put a round table in the middle of the quad outside the Great Hall at Wits? And one where Rhodes used to stand at UCT? And another one at UWC, UP and Rhodes? Can we come and sit at that round table and talk about our shared future? Put a seat there for the students. Let them speak. Put a seat there for the administrators who chose a career in service and academia. Let them have a turn. Put a seat there for government. Not a throne, just an ordinary seat. Put an open seat there for the black kid who doesn’t dream of education next year because they are hoping for food today. Let’s create a South African table and talk like a family who has to make it work. Are our universities not the centres of thought leadership? Then let’s unleash our minds together.
Minister, are you the one to help us do this?
Students, show us you are the leaders of the future and help us help you.
VCs, how can the churches, mosques, NGOs, boardrooms and the many millions of concerned citizens help you?