By Marlyn Faure
It’s all too easy to think now things can go back to normal. Of course, if by now you still don’t understand why students are protesting, please stop questioning the legitimacy of the struggle but rather the fibre of your conscience (or lack thereof). Over the last while there have been a number of wonderful (read oh-so-ignorant) responses to the recent student protests happening around the country. In any struggle of such gravity, there is a great deal that is missed. These are only four noteworthy responses about which something must be said:
1. ‘I also had to work hard when I was at varsity’
This is the typical meritocratic myth that middle and upper class South Africans like to believe. Here’s the deal, the fact that you could actually study and work suggests an enormous amount of privilege. Firstly, finding a job that pays you well-enough to either pay your tuition or your bills without any university qualification indicates that you had what most young South Africans do not have — no not an industrious attitude but an actual job. I grew up on the Cape Flats, an area where making it to matric was itself a huge accomplishment.
I was able to go to UCT on mostly scholarships since my single-income family would never have been otherwise able to afford to send me university. While being a full-time student, I was forced to also get a job — Friday nights, on weekends, during holidays — for years. Despite all of this, I soon realised that UCT was no place for people from townships who went to school where 70 matric students had to share a maths classroom designed for 35 students with one teacher. I realised that UCT was no place for students who had to travel for hours to get to campus. I realised that UCT was no place for students who didn’t have a laptop, or internet access at home. Mostly I realised that UCT was no place for students whose parents struggled just to put food on the table. So yes I made it through UCT and am currently completing post-graduate studies, but let me clear — I didn’t make it because I was exceptional or somehow more hard working than other black students coming from similar circumstances who either can’t gain access or were forced to stop their studies. I made it because I worked hard, but also because I somehow managed to navigate an unjust economic, political, social (read racist) system which structurally excludes most of South Africa’s youth.
So please do not suggest that student protesting is about not working hard enough or about entitlement — this is about justice. Please do not be blinded by you pseudo-morality because you are able to see from your ivory tower what these protesting “hooligans” obviously can’t. Please do not use your hard work as a stone to throw at students who have been symbolically and materially invisibilised by a system which is designed to exclude them.
2. ‘This is not about race, it’s about education for everyone’
There have been countless posts about how “diverse” and non-racial these protests are. People have been encouraged to join the protests because “all races are involved”. This narrative goes, we can now finally get over apartheid, we have a new enemy. But if you believe this story, then you also don’t know why students are protesting. Yes some white people have shown genuine solidarity but I remain deeply suspicious of most. While these protests are about access to education for all people (and all races) they are especially about the excluded black poor majority of this country. If you are not convinced that it is also profoundly about race, then look at the pictures of white students having to shield black students from police brutality because white skins cannot be conceived as “criminal”, “barbaric”, “violent” or “illegal”.
Or think about the amount of white people (old and young) who have supported this struggle in many ways and have been vocal about it and then think about how many white people were as supportive in previous protests like ones about decolonisation, led by the movements around the country like #RhodesMustFall. If we were honest, the real reason why many white people are so comfortable protesting now is because it’s an opportunity to criticise a corrupt, failing and black ANC government.
It’s an opportunity to publically confirm all the talks they heard from their parents about how these blacks are ruining the country. An opportunity to call out the “stupid blacks” who continue to vote for the ANC, a party who will continue to fail them. An opportunity to tell people to vote differently, to vote for change (read to vote for the DA, the obvious solution — but it’s not about race of course, they have a black leader now, right?). White people, stand in solidarity with the struggle but please stand as a white person, a beneficiary of privilege — use it to work for justice, not ignore it.
Know that dropping off water and oranges, marching to Parliament and Jammie Steps is important, but remember that you are white when you get into your Mini Cooper and go home to your leafy suburbs. I am amazed at how many white South Africans have come out in full force to criticise the government, but very few have asked, who created the unequal system in the first place, and who continues to benefit from such a system. I am also amazed that very few have asked what’s the role of corporate South Africa, by far the largest beneficiary of university graduates, which brings me to my next point.
3. ‘[Only] The government has failed its people’
Yes this true — the government has failed South Africa and I’ve been disgusted, angered and saddened by its apathy and complete disregard for the lives of people it has shown over this last week, months and years. And yes it is absolutely the government’s responsibility to ensure that its citizens have access to quality education at all levels. Now that that’s out of the way, why have only few people asked why corporate South Africa (read white capital) has been so silent on the matter?
Surely it stands to benefit from more graduates who enter the world of work as engineers, writers, geologists, accountants and so on. Or could it be that corporates remain silent because speaking out would mean that they would have to question why they have not done enough to invest in education so as to create more equitable access for young black students? Could it be that they would have to think about why their scholarships are often awarded based on merit only, which completely ignores how historical and structural disadvantages disproportionately affect poor black school-leavers and their grades?
Could it be that they would need to think about how corruption is deeply embedded in white corporate South Africa? Or that they are so comfortable to invest huge amounts of money in areas like sports (mostly rugby and cricket) which often benefit a white minority? Could it be that they would have to think about how they have captured the government to reap maximum benefits from an increasingly neo-liberal state? Could it also be that they would have to think about how white, corporate South Africa has been the biggest beneficiary of apartheid and a post-apartheid South Africa, and that it continues to exploit black labour without taking any responsibility?
4. ‘I just want my daughter/son to write her/his exam — they are so worried’
I’ve also seen posts by worried and anxious parents complaining about their worried and anxious kids who were unable to write their exams. This also applies to students who continue to moan about how they are inconvenienced. Of course this worry and fear is completely rational — I would also be concerned if my child was sick with worry while at home studying in front of her/his Mac, or out having coffee at Cocoa Wah Wah or out surfing, while her/fellow students were fighting for basic rights and dignity.
For parents who are worried about their children not being able to write exams or go to campus — CALM DOWN. The universities will obviously give students an opportunity to write exams — your child’s career is not somehow doomed because of a week of protesting. Instead of moaning about how inconvenient these protests are, why don’t you use it as an opportunity to conscientise yourself and your children? Why don’t you tell them, that instead of complaining about how this affects them, they need to also need to think about how the majority of South Africans must feel because this is their daily reality.
Why don’t you talk them about what it means to be a responsible and decent human being who genuinely cares about others, not simply consumed by their own ego-centric needs? Why don’t you teach them about what justice actually means for people who have faced centuries of injustice, and what their responsibility is as the beneficiaries of privilege? Tell them they don’t exist in a vacuum — instead of complaining about how their rights are being infringed on, teach them about how their everyday-actions (including their silence), lifestyle, and social location, actually also infringes on the rights of other people’s dignity and freedom to live a decent life.
If you are genuinely interested in making a difference in South Africa you have a choice to do better. When future generations look back and ask how did you contribute, “not knowing” will not be an excuse then. Do not doubt the true message of these protests. We cannot go back to our normal lives of comfort. We have to interrogate the very systems we accept and perpetuate, systems that ensure privilege for some and oppression for most.