"The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed…. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market… he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen… To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?"
John Adams, quoted by Hannah ArendtIn a dramatic student accommodation protest that mirrored the drastic inequalities that persist in post-Apartheid South African society 21 years into democratic rule, University of Cape Town #RhodesMustFall students pitched a tin shack and a portaloo at the bottom of the steps leading up to Jameson Hall. The protest, dubbed #Shackville, drew a great deal of attention, following close on the footsteps of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns. The ‘site’ of #Shackville was located a mere thirty metres away from the site of the now-deposed statue of the arch-colonialist and mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes.
Had #Shackville been a performance art or installation piece that was officially sanctioned and approved by the authorities of the institution, it would likely have been praised for its boldness and ingenuity for bringing the persistent realities of inequality and the dual economy to the doorstep of the most privileged institution in the country. Accompanied by a few performances about black exclusion, perhaps a mock service-delivery protest to boot, and a climactic mock protest consisting of strewn dead bodies that mirror Marikana and ‘76, it would probably receive a decent grade, purely for its ‘power’ as an artistic intervention on “the doors of learning”. That is, if #Shackville had been suitably sanitised enough to raise no official ire, its sterile appropriation of the realities of life in black South Africa would have been acceptable, even commendable.
However, that is not the way it turned out. Instead, the realities of protest culture in 21st Century South Africa made a genuine and serious incursion into university life at UCT. Instead of a compliant, symbolic performance, what unfolded at UCT over the past two weeks, where students engaged in pitched battle with police (and even other students), closely resembled the mayhem and chaos that many South Africans who occupy the ranks of the poor and marginalised are all too familiar with.
The rapid rise in service delivery protests – since circa 2007 – has largely gone un-acknowledged as a phenomenon in its own right in the South African political spectrum. While service delivery protests, as they are referred to, are awarded a lot of media and public attention when they erupt violently enough to disrupt everyday life in the public realm, they are scarcely recognised as an emerging medium of protest that deserves its own place and recognition as a political phenomenon in 21st Century South Africa.
To be sure, while these protests have their roots in the 1980s; where youth and communities were encouraged by anti-apartheid movements to “make the country ungovernable”, they have taken on a life of their own two decades after the advent of democracy. The term “service delivery protest”, however, is not an apt or adequate description. Service delivery protests are about much more than service delivery. They are about exclusion and invisibility of the poor and marginalised, as much as they are about drastic and unjust inequality, as well as a long-overdue and suppressed anger and frustration at the slow pace of change for the poor in post-Apartheid South Africa.
It is this anger and frustration at a pathologically unresponsive and sluggish institutional and state system that lies at the core of the protests that exploded at the end of 2015 across the campuses of tertiary institutions across the country. The explosion led to student marches upon parliament in Cape Town, the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Luthuli House (ANC headquarters) in the City of Johannesburg, and many other official government buildings across the country, culminating in a sudden back-down by government over fee increases.
Yet strangely, instead of being met with energetic new visions and comprehensive plans by the establishment, which acknowledge the legitimacy of the anger and frustration that students – who after 21 years of democracy – suffer much the same struggles as students did in the early 1990s, the students have been met with the drudgery of the bureaucratic ‘ground-game’.
Moreover, to add insult to injury, the ‘would-be’ appropriation of black struggles (as parodied earlier) is mirrored by the institutional and bureaucratic responses to the communications from the #RhodesMustFall protesters. Instead of an unequivocal acknowledgement of the right to protest the authorities/establishment deigned to ‘educate’ the protesters as to the ‘correct’ way to go about protesting. Astonishing in the extreme, this distinctly paternalistic attitude itself lies at the root of the anger with the institutions that has bubbled up after incubating for over two decades i.e. it makes the protesters invisible, unable to gain legitimacy on their own terms, despite the fact that they have been profoundly let down by a heedless, inadequate system that – in terms of real action – has effectively remained deaf to their plight for many years.
The mind boggles at the temerity of the authorities to adopt a leadership trajectory that seeks to ‘resolve’ matters by heading straight into the tedium of rules and regulations, when the seething anger of the youth has turned into palpable rage that has infected both the popular and academic discourses. Race, has once again come to occupy the centre of the South African socio-political realm, by no small means catalysed by the recent blatant racist incidents that have occupied the public imagination over the past few months.
In this context, is the kind of leadership that has been provided by the establishment and its bureaucracies suitable? Indeed, will it effectively serve to exacerbate or quell the frustration and anger that has bubbled up into rage?
Thankfully, we have substantial historical precedent to draw on in South Africa to answer that question. In particular, the fraught transition to democracy, in which my generation threatened to destabilise the entire country, can provide many insights into what is required in the current moment. Sensitive, sincere and visionary leadership is the answer, not automatic, defensive responses that reinforce the establishment as legitimate and the dissenters as misguided youth who require lessons in how to go about voicing their dissent.
Yet the spotlight has been on the protesting youth, much the same way as it has been on service delivery protests. They are painted with the same brush as protests in the 1980s were; a bunch of unruly radical types, who are in effect directionless anarchists who are up to no good, and from whose activities no good can come.
It begs the question; can we expect visionary, enlightened leadership through a crisis from young, frustrated, marginalised students who until now have been largely ignored and de-legitimised by the establishment? Or should this kind of leadership be coming from seasoned leaders who have the benefit of long-term experience of uncertainty and the challenges of transition?
Clearly, it is the latter with whom the responsibility lies, as they are – presumably – the ones with both the experience and power to effect meaningful change.
When anger and frustration is met with rules and regulations, and a patronising tone, it quickly turns to rage. Precisely because it is unacknowledged and has no avenues for expression and legitimacy it bottles up and explodes in unpredictable and destructive ways. There is nothing new about this. Indeed, this is precisely how service delivery protests erupt at local levels. We, the privileged public, armed with the telescopic lenses of the frivolous media, only see the eruptions, and not the lead-up to them. Those who are invisible in daily life remain invisible until they explode into action in the public realm.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that having reproduced the same, unimaginative and staid leadership responses, that the university establishment up on the mountain in effect catalysed the degeneration of the protest into a cascade of disruptive and violent events. Predictably, the university, armed with its legal team, eventually obtained a court interdict against the protesters and suspended a number of students, after #Shackville was demolished overnight by armoured police vehicles.
As events escalated a petrol bomb was hurled at the Vice Chancellors office and a research vehicle and bus was burnt down. What received the most attention, however, was that the protesting students had burned a pile of paintings that were hanging in the residences (most of which were of little actual artistic merit).
“Oh the horror!” the suburban dwelling middle class voices have exclaimed, and many comparisons with the Nazis have been made (i.e. over the burnt paintings). Yet these comparisons are inaccurate, for it is the Nazis who occupied the bureaucracies and wielded their incontestable power over rules and regulations to their ultimate destructive and impersonal ends. It is they who mechanised death, made objects of human beings, and used rules, regulations and systems of classification to deny them their humanity. Many valuable paintings were in fact hoarded by the Nazis, in the same way as they pried the gold out of the teeth of those who they murdered in the gas chambers.
It is ironic, that even those who are quick to view these events through the lenses of the holocaust, find it difficult to understand how a youth, only 21 years after the Apartheid project ended, would see the realities around them through the lenses of Apartheid.
Yet the explanations for this are plenty. South Africa has the highest levels of inequality in the world. Spatial inequalities in current day South Africa mirror those that existed under Apartheid. In the public realm, the majority of the black poor remain third class citizens whose daily experience is a completely different reality, dictated by dual systems of economics, employment, service provision, law and justice. Even when black people enter former white institutions, they are regarded as outsiders, who should be grateful that they have been included in former white bastions of privilege. It is as though in invisible shack cloaks one despite having undertaken a long and arduous journey to join the ranks of the would-be educated elite.
It is not difficult to understand why the youth are angry and frustrated by the condition they have inherited. It is not difficult to understand why, when faced with immovable and resolute bureaucracies that specialise in a taunting “double-speak” that delegitimises their very existence, much less their cause, that they would turn to rage and explode in destructive and unpredictable ways. Indeed, as history teaches us, one of South Africa’s most celebrated post-Apartheid activists, Zachie Achmat, attempted to burn down his school in Salt River during the 1976 youth uprisings, when he was just 14 years old. Apparently he proudly states this in the introduction of his CV.
And as the situation escalates across the country, there will perhaps be no cause for reflection until lives are lost. What is difficult to understand, however, is the inability of government and institutional leaderships to rise to the occasion and provide decisive and clear leadership when the mandate to act has been impressed upon them in such certain and unequivocal terms. It is difficult to understand how experienced, and presumably competent leaders have responded to the crisis by retracting into bureaucratic processes, playing the blame-game, and descending to a level unworthy of experienced, enlightened intellectuals.
Instead of bringing a calm, focused and determined sincerity to the current crisis, the leadership of tertiary institutions have effectively added fuel to the fire, and it is a great pity that the narrative that is being promulgated has placed the blame for the crisis at the feet of the students. While it is an unmistakable fact that the students have taken the initiative to conceive of and take protest action, they are not the ones who hold the key to the solutions. Those keys are tucked tightly away in the forbidding hands of the establishment, and they will only be grudgingly released, if ever!
 For full correspondence see: