Thinking about the campaign against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town last month and its repercussions at other universities (including my alma mater, Rhodes University), led me to think about the German Christian priest and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
With Bonhoeffer, deeds matched words in the toughest of parishes: Nazi Germany. His most famous teaching was about what he called the "mortal" difference between "cheap grace" and "costly grace".
On April 9 1945, exactly 70 years ago this month, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer in Flossenburg prison, two weeks before it was liberated by the Allied armies and three weeks before Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the bunker. Bonhoeffer was 39, and had been arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943.
A vocal critic of the regime's euthanasia programme and its genocidal persecution of Jews, he published his most famous book,The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge, meaning discipleship), in 1937, at a time of ferocious repression.
I think his words are relevant in South Africa today, if one can consider Bonhoeffer's Christian concept of "grace" - understood as the highest kind of spiritual and moral behaviour, embodying God's word in action - in the light of how young people should address themselves to the problems of South Africa, now.
Cheap grace, he wrote, "means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. ...Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite."
Costly grace, by contrast, "is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."
He continued: "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace."
By that, Bonhoeffer meant direct conflict with the Nazi regime.
It is easy to see that "cheap grace" in South Africa today could be represented by the throwing of faeces on the statue of a man who died 113 years ago, and demanding that the statue be removed, or that a university change its name.
But what would be the equivalent in the political democracy of South Africa today for Bonhoeffer's "costly grace", which cost him his life?
What are the difficult tasks which should be a duty for the privileged minority of young people who have been lucky enough, and hard-working enough, to find themselves at university, in a country starved of education?
Here are three I can think of, but which do not appear to have been addressed by the #RhodesMustFall campaigners:
Education: The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its "Economic Survey of South Africa 2013" stated as its first point: "Education should do a better job in providing equal chances for all South Africans. The government should expand its programme to address infrastructure backlogs, improve the delivery of learning materials with priority to the most deprived schools, and increase the number of teachers.
"More school leadership training and support staff could be provided to school principals in exchange for stricter accountability. The South African government could further improve the governance of the education system by joining the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) and by undertaking an OECD Review of Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes."
Nearly 20 years since 1994, why had this not been done? Why is it in such a crucial sector as education that there needs to be "stricter accountability" of school principals because their performance was not adequate? How exactly does the anti-Rhodes campaign by those at the top of the educational pyramid help the great majority at the bottom?
Economy: The OECD in its 2013 report stated that per capita income growth in South Africa was "slower than in most other major emerging economies."
Angel Gurria, the OECD secretary-general, noted in a speech "Unlocking South Africa's great economic potential" that unemployment remains "excessively high, educational outcomes are poor on average and extremely uneven, which aggravates the excess supply of unskilled labour as well as worsening income inequality".
He noted that the country needs to achieve "rapid, inclusive economic growth", citing education as a "particularly critical area".
The report found that the policy framework for addressing environmental issues, including water scarcity, was sound, but that implementation had so far been slow, "in part due to limited administrative capacity".
One is entitled to ask: What is the present generation of university students doing in their studies right now to ensure they perform very much better in administrative capacity than the previous generation? In what way will they be superior to Cecil Rhodes in the 19th century, or the apartheid regime in the 20th, if they fail? The following figures tell a story of the real world since 1994, in terms of World Bank statistics:
* China GDP 1994: US$559.20-billion,
* China GDP 2013: US$9240.27-billion.
* SA GDP 1994: US$135.80-billion,
* SA GDP 2013: US$350.63-billion.
The South African economy grew (in nominal dollar terms) by less than three times over this period, while the economy of China grew by more than 16 times. China developed five or six times more rapidly than South Africa.
Power outages: Twenty-one years, this month, after the first democratic elections, why is the country not able to keep the lights on?
Who or what is responsible, and what should be done about it? Is the country producing enough world-quality mechanical and electrical engineers, or is it not? And if not, why not?
How many of the students demonstrating against a statue are those engineers of the future - a hard subject, demanding "costly" application from a young person - who will maintain a stable power supply for South Africa, instead of allowing outages to undermine its economic infrastructure: a very "costly" failure?
In the light of these fundamental needs of the nation, to what extent are the student demonstrations - in direct opposition to the march of schoolchildren in Soweto on June 16, 1976 - not a matter of narcissistic self-indulgence?
Addressing these structural inequalities of the 21st century will mark the difference, in secular terms, between the "costly grace" now urgently needed from the present generation of students and the "cheap grace" of post-liberation rhetoric.
Words are cheap, real transformation costly.
* Paul Trewhela edited MK's underground newspaper, Freedom Fighter, during the Rivonia Trial, and was a political prisoner from 1964 to 1967. He was a student at Rhodes University.
This article first appeared in the Daily Dispatch.
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter