Bringing together people from different backgrounds to discuss the student protests and hashtag movements is never easy. Yet students are taking the lead, and taking to task problematic responses in the process.
“I can tell you now, the people in #ZumaMustFall were dololo in #FeesMustFall, and the people of #RUreferencelist are far too often dololo in LGBTQ issues. Whose voice is now going to be worthy of being listened to?” – KhanyisileMboya
Khanyisile Mboya, a student at the University currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR), begins the conversation.
“The hard work of the people in the movements, in particular black women, has been intellectual, emotional, psychological to mention but a few. Black women have been shamboks, written the minutes and then gone to find food. Black women have been violated by the police, fellow black man and so called leaders. But still they continue to arrive at the forefront”.
Mboya goes on to criticise the academic culture that these women had to struggle against, saying that “Academics are exceedingly stiff, defensive, and often unwilling to engage in anything outside of their (familiar) teachings. So dear Steve Biko, I don’t think the oppressor wants to be free, and the work of doing both is tiresome”.
Concern was expressed by Fezokuhle Mthonti, also a student of UCKAR, over the demographics of the audience and the reasons people had for attending the discussion. This led to the question – why are you here?
Apartheid-era activists and Rhodes University lecturers, among others, expressed support for the students and the protests.
“We fought hard, we worked hard in the late 80’s and early 90’s… We stopped fighting because we thought that the battle had been won. But what we’ve been hearing over the last year is exactly what I heard when I was at university. The same fight is still happening, and if we are still hearing the same things coming from younger voices, 25 years later, then we have lost. And we have to do something about that.”
“I was a student activist in 1976… I am here… to listen to students. So when I go back to Pretoria, I can speak to the community and to the young people and identify with them.”
“It had to take a bunch of students, from a few universities, to actually make some of us as black lecturers in the classroom to be taken seriously by the students. It took a bunch of students banning some of the (micro-aggressions) for us to be respected in the classroom… As black lecturers, these students have done us proud.”
UCKAR students also identified their reasons for engaging in this conversation, focusing on the need for personal safety.
“The honest truth is that I am a first year. I came to Rhodes University to get away from Johannesburg… thinking I was going to become a hippy, life was going to be so great. Within the first six months of me being here, I was shot at with rubber bullets… We want to feel safe, we want to be ok in our own space… and I guess that’s why I am personally here.”
“Honestly guys, some of us just want to be in South Africa, be safe, be happy, raise our families and not be afraid of black men, white men, any man, not be afraid of any race and just be ok. And it’s just so difficult to be ok in South Africa.”
Despite agreement over what people wanted from the protests, there were some points of contention from the audience regarding the panellists.
The responses from audience members were mostly directly addressed to Mboya and Mthonti. A student who had protested at the Union Building stated that the protests had been amazing because there had been ‘no colour.’ Another man said that Mboya and Mthonti were working in an ‘elitist space’ and were ‘not representative of South Africa’ because they were highly educated.
Mboya was quick to remind the audience that you cannot avoid seeing colour.
“It’s about visibility, it’s about seeing. You went into the protest with a kind of eye that says ‘We’re all fighting for free education, it’s not about race.’ Yes, it is about race. Because I am going to get shot. You’re not. You’re going to get bailed out. I’m not.”
Mthonti chose to address the issue of elitism. “I’ve been on scholarships my whole life. Just because I am articulate in a particular space doesn’t mean I’m elitist. It means I have to have 300 other jobs to be in a particular space”.
While the students owned the panel, other participants provided additional information based on their experiences and research of the protests.
Thierry Luescher, Assistant Director of Institutional Research at the University of the Free State (UFS), tracked his analytical work on the student protests, focusing particularly on the dominant political culture and social media activity.
Luescher drew criticism for his description of the political culture in this country.
“If South Africans want to raise a grievance, there is one way in which you get it into the newspapers, there’s one way in which you get the political elite to hear you. And that is you put a match to it. You have to burn down schools, libraries, community centres, tyres, people. It is a terrible political culture, but it is effective.”
“Put a match to it. That is the current political culture, that is the dominant political culture. Because people don’t write letters to newspapers, unless they are white.”
Luescher attempted to qualify his statement in response to the audience’s disagreement before quickly retracting it. But this was the second time that a white, privileged person exhibited blatant ignorance of the black experience in a discussion about a movement lead predominantly by young black people. The energy of the room, a mild apprehension, was becoming perceptively tempered with frustration.
Shose Kessi, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), proceeded to present results of a project she produced over three years with black UCT students. Participants were briefed to ‘tell narratives about their experiences using photography and text.’ She featured three images of an exhibition focusing on colonial statues in university spaces.
Carl Collison, a ournalist who documented the #RhodesMustFall movement, spoke about his work which explores “the ways in which the protest manifested itself… in terms of the aesthetic, the image… the way that movement has manifested itself in terms of imagery”.
One audience member used Kessi and Collison’s work to explain Luescher’s mistake.
“I think that it’s really important that Carl and Shose were putting students and marginalised voices at the centre (of their presentations), because the danger if you don’t do that is what happened in your presentation. You present an anthropological lens on the student movement… it is indicative of an academic, ivory tower way of seeing that is completely informed by whiteness, completely informed by colonial ways of thinking, where you can research and view without putting voices in the centre of that that gives rise to things like ‘it’s a terrible political culture’ or ‘black people don’t write in the paper.”
The space that the audience and panel members found themselves in were also considered in responses from the audience, who were rightfully upset.
“I want to honour and make space and hold space for the… discomfort that is happening in this room, because it is important. It’s really important… Many of us have these conversations all the time and live with this discomfort all the time. But if you, for the first time, are sitting in this room and you are feeling some type of way, I need you to understand that this is a very, very important moment for you.”
“It’s difficult to even be a youth and be in spaces like this and articulate yourself and feel like you are invited and you are welcome in here. A lot of people avoid spaces like this because we do get silenced, unfortunately. You know, I am here, I’m black… and then I hear all these bombastic words being thrown around. The last thing I want to do is give my opinion. The last thing I want to do is be in a space where the majority of the people in here are white people, who have had the opportunity to grow in these kinds of spaces, and then there’s me, first time in all of these things, and then I’m supposed to have a ‘valid’ opinion and be ok in these kinds of spaces?”
“You don’t know what it means to bottle up a pain, for so long. And you can’t put it in five-point form, and you can’t say ‘hurry it up along, you need to be short here’. No! We were in the fire while you guys are here theorising about this moment, and then to have these two women as simply discussants and not talking to movements that they were central to is incredibly violent. It’s bullshit.”
“For what it’s worth, it feels like what these women have been going through is going to be reduced to a performance. It’s just going to be reduced to anger, it’s going to be reduced to rage, and we are going to leave here in awe of their intelligence but not acknowledging the mess that has happened to them, and every other black person in the room.’”
What was achieved in this discussion was not entirely clear, with each individual having risked and offered different things by attending. While Think!Fest organiser Anthea Garman noted that “everyone here did important work today,” it was the students, both in the panel and in the audience, who were the most emotionally committed and responsible for the intellectual work behind progress in the movement.