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We seemed like a leaderless country yesterday. Who will stand up?

I left my office opposite Parliament (I work at the Human Sciences Research Council in Plein Street) after I heard the first stun grenade. The first thing I thought about was Marikana. I couldn’t just stand by if students — many of whom I teach — were going to be hurt by police. I followed the students into the parliamentary precinct and asked to speak to the person in change. (Isn’t that what white people do?). To my surprise I was taken to at least three people who were in charge of various aspects of the police action — crowd control, negotiating, and those arrested. No one ever asked who I was. Here’s what I saw.

Disciplined students who were sitting down, holding their hands above their heads in submission, but who ran in fear when the grenades and teargas went off. Many stood their ground against batons, tasers and teargas. In short their protest was disciplined, well-organised, and critical to the future of this country. Their grievances about fees, ongoing oppression and domination by systems that should have long been done away with (an outdated curriculum that ignores African scholars and history, a lack of transformation in who teaches, and symbols of the past that have remained in place) along with policies that keep the poor poor (outsourcing, poor benefits), are all our struggles. They just have the energy and the courage to do something about these struggles, when most of us middle-class South Africans — black and white — are content to enjoy the fruits of democracy in our well-paid employment and suburban homes.

A police force (definitely not a police service yesterday) who were leaderless and disproportionate in their response to the protest. There were a few people in charge, but no coordinated strategy. The attitude of many of the police, including the person who identified herself to me as the chief negotiator, was belligerent, even hysterical. She kept pointing to the rocks on the ground and saying that “these hooligans were attacking a national key point”. I counted seven bricks (an attack?) lying on the ground, the rest were shoes and water bottles. Many of the police were dressed in what can only be described as gladiatorial garb — pads, batons, guns. They looked menacing.

Students from the University of Cape Town clash with members of the South African Police Services after they forced their way into the South African Parliament in Cape Town on October 21, 2015. (AFP / Rodger Bosch)
Students from the University of Cape Town clash with members of the South African Police Services after they forced their way into the South African Parliament in Cape Town on October 21, 2015. (AFP / Rodger Bosch)

Those arresting Kgotsi Chikane used a ridiculous amount of force; others were spewing vitriol at the students as they chased them back with the help of their stun grenades. Students carried nothing but water bottles. There were a few policemen and women with different views with whom I spoke after the parliamentary precinct was locked down and straggling protesters, parliamentary staff, media and police mingled inside awaiting the opening of the gates. Many had children at university; they understood the pain of high fees and the inordinate demands of universities which failed to appreciate the plight of young people from poor backgrounds when it came to computer and internet access, transport, exorbitant fees, late bursary payments, the frustration of outdated curricula and unattainable expectations. Some were visibly saddened by their colleague’s actions; others spoke to students through guard rails, and shook their hands and apologised.

An unresponsive, disinterested government: Minister Blade Nzimande ignored students for nearly three hours, listening to a “business as usual” mid-term budget speech. When he came out and tried to address students he looked bored and the antithesis of someone who was sympathetic to their cries despite having been a struggle hero himself. Ferial Haffajee got it right when she spoke of current government leaders as having fallen from “Hero to Nero” on Twitter last night. He was loudly booed when he spoke of a “framework” to address their concerns. (Wouldn’t you? Doesn’t that sound passive and non-responsive?) Nzimande eventually gave up, and along with the other leaders of our country slipped away from Parliament — without the usual blue light fanfare. We seemed like a leaderless country yesterday. Who will stand up?

In speaking to those arrested, which I was also freely allowed to do, they asked me to try to get the minister to address students, to ask students to maintain their discipline — which all but one or two were doing, and to get messages to family and friends. Throughout the day my students were writing and texting me to find out about extending deadlines in the midst of their historic protest. Some had thesis to hand in. Late last night they sent messages via Twitter and text updating with updates about the progress of their charges, the interdict they were seeking against the police, and what could be done to support their struggle.

The thing to understand from these student protests is that they aren’t primarily anti-white, anti-government or even just about fee increases. They are about wanting a new kind of South Africa: in which poverty and exploitation is dealt with; one in which violence is not our first response to student protest; belligerence from government ministers and police no longer characterises our society; protest is recognised as a legitimate way of bringing about change; and labels of “hooliganism” and “stupid” is not the first response from the comfortable middle classes — both black and white — towards those who take leadership to ensure it happens.

We need to see these protests through the eyes of young people — most of who were born as apartheid fell and whose parents were promised a dream — one not yet realised, and not looking likely to be realised. Sure government needs to be responsive to their cries for a just society — but this government did not cause the crisis of inequality we now face. It is a task they have taken on and they need support from every aspect of society to change.

Finally, as a white South African, a message to other white South Africans — this series of protest is likely to inconvenience you. You may as well get used to it. But maybe you’d like to contribute in some way. Immediately you might want to offer a show of solidarity — help with legal representation, airtime for students, allowances for deadlines if you’re an academic, money for food, water, and medical care. Maybe even call Adam Habib or Max Price and offer to pay a black students fees for 2016. At R40 000 a year it’s a small price to pay for the fruits of democracy we enjoy. But mostly start by making an effort to understand. Speak to students, listen to their ideas. These are the young people who will, in a few years be members of Parliament, directors in government and business leaders. They understand nuance and complexity. They are steeped in our country’s history, and if you didn’t notice it yesterday — they are standing shoulder to shoulder — black, white, coloured and Indian — with the same purpose: a better, and a new deal for us all.