It appears that the militant Malcolm X dictum, “[b]y any means necessary”, has been treated too literally, without any regard to the evident need to think through and review the purpose and efficacy of the unbridled, anarchic, indiscriminate and very destructive violence that has plagued the re-radicalised student movement over the past eighteen months.
The endemic violence raging across and ravaging our society on so many fronts, especially at universities, has clearly reached a tipping point. In this regard the vote by a majority of students at Wits University last week to return to classes and prepare for the end-of-year exams while outstanding issues are addressed in an environment more conducive to doing so, was the most positive sign yet that we might have turned the corner on such violence. However, chaotic violence resumed on the day that the return to class last week was meant to happen.
To worsen matters and escalate hostilities, immeasurably renewed violence broke out this week, following a decision by Wits leadership over the past weekend to resume classes on Monday. Windows, concrete bins and other infrastructure was damaged. The violence at Wits also spilled out into the streets of Braamfontein, in which a bus was burnt, a sports brand concept store looted and several cars pelted with stones and damaged in the resulting mayhem.
But student leaders denied any responsibility for this violence.
However, to argue that this growing culture of violence is attributed to the effects of apartheid is seriously misleading and misplaced.
Post-apartheid South Africa has produced black violence that can be both attributed in part to that past but much of it also expresses the deep discontent and frustrations of ordinary people in townships and poor black students with so many unfulfilled promises and expectations, whether it be about our constitutional rights or the provisions of the Freedom Charter.
But it is precisely at this point where the realisation must dawn that this kind of destructive violence, besides its many other drawbacks, is not only not going to help deliver free education for all or for poor students, but it might in fact worsen matters. This is because the huge losses the destruction has resulted in across the country – especially within a neo-liberal economy – is going to inevitably impact on the fiscus and budgeting at local government level, schools and universities. In other words the effects of the violence could be retrogressive, especially in a growing economic crisis within which budgetary challenges are already major concerns for the government.
Besides, the view that the authorities will only listen to the language of violence is unwise, regretful and mistaken, simply because that tactic has not always worked. It has often not led to demands being met or to the desired extent. In fact it sometimes appeared to have had the opposite effect: it made things more difficult and acrimonious between parties and solutions therefore harder to reach.
On the other hand, the embattled ruling ANC, already in serious trouble on so many fronts, must realise that as much as this destructive violence must be condemned the underlying high costs of education for poor black youth particularly and a myriad of problems related to the state of tertiary education – especially in a context of grinding black poverty and unemployment – must be addressed with the urgency it deserves.
And if the protesters destroying educational infrastructure believe that the future belongs to the youth then they are evidently destroying that very future by orgies of unbridled violence. What is worryingly clear is that the pattern of unbridled violence in black townships has been replicated at universities.
It was therefore with a sense of incredulity that I, a few months ago, watched on video that war-mongering African nationalist demagogue, Andile Mngxitama, not only urging students to continue burning down institutions but said that to do so was an act of decolonisation, in line with the thinking of Frantz Fanon. Such is his crude, reckless and provocative interpretation of Fanon on the use of violence. Besides, Algerian society in the 1950s and 1960s is a far cry from South Africa today.
This is but one of the perils of a too literal interpretation of Fanon, irrespective of the context of time, place and circumstances. In any case Fanon himself in Studies in a Dying Colonialism cautions: “In a war of liberation, the colonised must win, but they must do so cleanly, without ‘barbarity’.” In the same work he asserts: “Because we want a democratic and a renovated Algeria, because we believe one cannot rise and liberate oneself in one area and sink in another, we condemn, with pain in our hearts, those brothers who have flung themselves into revolutionary action with the almost physiological brutality that centuries of oppression give rise to and feeds.”
But a source of current violence is also a direct result of the largely neo-liberal post-apartheid policies on education and basic public services. Even in a context of widespread and chronic black unemployment and poverty according to this commodified ethos regardless of material circumstances poor students must pay high and unaffordable fees for their education.
This is besides the related expenses for accommodation, food, transport and so on that they can ill afford. Such poverty-induced struggles to meet basic needs are arguably themselves forms of violence against students.
However, there can be no doubt that in many cases heavy-handed overreaction to student protests by police and security companies has contributed to an escalation of violence at universities, for which they must take responsibility.
But unless the re-radicalised student movement seriously and urgently rethinks the most burning question of violence in its struggles for free higher education it might become the biggest reason for their own unravelling, which can also serve to undermine the big gains they have made and the formidable impact their struggles have had over the past eighteen months in reshaping the national agenda, our priorities and the way forward.
It was very telling when a student leader at Wits recently argued that all those who returned to classes, following the poll, are betraying the revolution. But he evidently does not understand that unbridled, anarchic and very destructive violence, which included the shameful destruction of libraries and historic artworks at universities across this country, has little or nothing in common with the revolution. He seems to think that the more infrastructure is burnt down the greater is the revolutionary sweep but such thinking is dangerously short-sighted and naïve.
Besides, to destroy vitally important educational infrastructure is self-defeating and bizarrely counterproductive. But these students in this regard have been shooting themselves in the foot many times in waves of unbridled and indiscriminate violence over the past eighteen months, during which little or nothing was spared. Such violence, I argue, can burn away the revolution itself.
However, despite the many weaknesses of this movement, including the lack of a clear and strong leadership with the requisite authority, maturity and experience to guide and when necessary control volatile student protests, it has shown up the serious limitations of the negotiated settlement of 1993 and the 1994 first-ever non-racial and democratic elections in the most dramatic ways possible.
The fundamental compromises the ANC made with the power of white capital in particular – where the bulk of the economic wealth resides still – is in the final analysis the major reason for the crisis at universities. The point is that this country easily possesses the wealth to make education, not only at universities, but at all levels, free. The ANC requires the political will to act more decisively in this regard. An education wealth tax is long overdue.
Main Photograph: Babylon by Burning Bus… A protestor stands before a burning bus in Braamfontein, Johannesburg on Monday this week –by Daylin Paul