Press "Enter" to skip to content

So #FeesHaveFallen but let’s not celebrate too quickly

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”.

White UCT protesters form a human shield around black protesters to protect them from the police outside the Rondebosch police station, 20 October 2015. Photo by David Harrison
White UCT protesters form a human shield around black protesters to protect them from the police outside the Rondebosch police station, 20 October 2015. Photo by David Harrison

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.

Author

  • On our Reader Blog, we invite Thought Leader readers to submit one-off contributions to share their opinions on politics, news, sport, business, technology, the arts or any other field of interest. If you'd like to contribute, first read our guidelines for submitting material to this blog.

6 Comments

  1. Doctanic Doctanic 27 October 2015

    I’m in agreement about most of this. I’m just so sick of the default racist assumptions that underpin both the discussions of those people this writer berates, AND this writer. No matter what happens, or why I feel or think as I do about issues such as these, I can’t but be reminded again and again and again and again that I’m white and that somehow that is determinative of things. Maybe some of us don’t fall into the neat boxes you seem so delightedly to describe.

  2. divvie divvie 27 October 2015

    I have heard that there is 6.1 M black middle class now in SA. This is larger than the entire white population in SA.
    Lets do the maths. Let us say that the white middle class is approx. 1/10 of 5 million = 1/2 million white. So, by the authors reasoning, the whites should take all the blame for all the black suffering?

  3. Doom Doom 27 October 2015

    The meritocracy myth has two variations, the first incarnation of the myth is very easy to dismiss because of its racial undertones. When white people say put in some effort or rather more effort and you will find yourself in the position I am in(successful), its easy to point out the fact that many of the things that make a difference in one’s life are things that the person who is benefitting from them may not see or understand. For example being born to parents that have university qualifications increases the likelihood of that child getting a qualification, kids born into households that have books often read earlier and consequently become better performs at school. No amount of hard work can reverse this, without resources, material or even motivational hard work will do nothing for you.
    The second iteration of the meritocracy myth, the more problematic version, is black meritocracy. When I say black meritocracy I mean black people usually previously disadvantaged black people who have succeeded. They claim they succeeded as a consequence of hard work and nothing but. No one can dispute the value of hard work or the effort put in by these people to succeed but what they forget is that hard work without an appropriate context leads to nothing. A teach who identifies your potential and introduces you to a sponsor is resource, a competent teacher is a resource, a parent who prioritizes extra tuition as opposed to alcohol is resource. These are things proponents of meritocracy, black or otherwise don’t consider.
    Whats more important is the fact that the cult of meritocracy often ignores the fact that the language of meritocracy ignores historically contingent disadvantage. In South Africa for example apartheid is a historically contingent disadvantage that renders the argument from meritocracy null and void especially if you consider the fact that advantage and disadvantage are cumilative. For meritocracy to make sense it has to emerge from an egalitarian context without egalitarianism , meritocracy makes no sense.
    Sorry for focusing on one aspect of the argument, I just have a particular distaste for the meritocracy myth and its implications.

  4. Robert Ahlschlager Robert Ahlschlager 29 October 2015

    All very solid point’s which have various degree’s of merit. As a privileged white individual I can understand the authors points that many of us don’t fully grasp the reality of being from a poor background and the challenges it puts in your way in all aspects of life. My issue is that the article again looks to belittle a part of society instead of trying to educate them to the errors of their views, far too often this is the case and all it accomplishes is to further divided people based on their backgrounds.

    Obviously the author has very strong feelings regarding racial privilege and I am sure that these are and have been justifiable through her life. Yes there are still many out there who don’t understand the difficulties many face on a daily basis, but please rather educate and try to close the gap than belittle and widen it.

  5. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 31 October 2015

    No, dear. White people supported this because it is logical, practical and of benefit to our country. Getting rid of a statue wasn’t going to do that. With a major increase in government subsidy, to universities, we will gain a higher GDP, a lower unemployment, a better standard of living for all, the realisation of the vast potential of our citizens AND a wider tax base. Getting rid of a statue did nothing of significance. It would be like me expecting you to become all excited and militant about the Jacaranda trees in Pretoria …. you wouldn’t give a tinkers if there are trees in Pretoria or not. It makes no difference in your life.

    Study time was lost, a toilet was emptied, university property was damaged and someone took a statue away. The young woman, who was sleeping on a mat on the floor, is still sleeping on a mat on the floor. The young man who was struggling to find funds for his third year fees, is still struggling to find funds for his third year fees. I was happy to see the statue go. I just didn’t feel that it was a battle worth fighting. Rhodes University had (and still has) far more pressing problems than a statue.

    My advice : pick your battles. Fighting about lawn ornaments is not going to make a real difference to your life in 20 years time. Having a Doctoral Degree is.

Leave a Reply