My entire student career at UWC was peppered with boycotts and student protests. Most were legitimate; some were for the fun of it, while others were completely lawless. As students we protested against all the evils of apartheid and some university regulations, which were often indistinguishable from those of the apartheid state. The political issues, however, were clear – white minority rule, forced removals, the group areas act, detention without trial, the pass laws and many others.
Academics and students were aligned on the big issues but often differed with each other on strategy and tactics. There were times when students were wilful, taunting the police who illegally occupied the campus and who never hesitated to use teargas, or even shoot. Whenever student leaders called for boycotts, often not agreed to by all constituencies, the vanguard would beat up fellow students, many of them women, across their faces and chests as a show of their commitment to the armed struggle.
There were times when buildings were burnt down, when offices of unpopular academics were vandalised and when the lives of some academics were physically threatened. One professor came to classes with a security guard. Some apartheid academics even received danger pay for risking their lives teaching us “natives.”
These were difficult times. Slogans such as liberation before education were easily bandied about. There were movements outside of the ANC that opposed these slogans prophesying that we would regret the day we tolerated such perilous utterances. And today we see the consequences of such idiocies in all their glory.
Watching the current student protests from afar, I am reminded yet again of the period between 1973 and 1990 and despite achieving much, we also have come to reap what we have sown then. I remember the many acts of sexual violence against women on the campus, and how top management at UWC explicitly refused to “call in the apartheid police to deal with rape”.
The result was an explosion of cases of rape and sexual violence based on the implicit belief that male domination was cultural rather than criminal. The establishment of a gender-sensitive tribunal put an end (at the time) to occurrences of sexual violence, as an attempt to hold the male leadership accountable for their actions.
We have had to do a lot of work educating students about the role of women in the resistance movement; about the rights of women to citizenship and democracy; and disputing the notion that the struggle for democracy meant black male domination. We fought for a post-apartheid dispensation that would be governed by the rule of law, human rights, and the constitution.
Today we see students embark on so-called anti-racist struggles on campuses under the pretext of transformation. Their claims are largely baseless given the failed results of transformation elsewhere. Their agendas are to wreak havoc on campuses, easy targets to display the brute force they use to prove they are committed and powerful. With much time on their hands these protesters fling about accusations of racism as randomly as Andile Lili’s poo protests against the Democratic Alliance.
What they want is not really clear but all I know that their struggles are rather egocentric, self-absorbed, and laced with racial narcissism. Black students never had it so good. Yet they seem to thrive on victimhood and “woundedness”. This is an age old recipe to get guilt-ridden liberals on the back foot, instead of educating themselves and pursuing excellence, to equip them to take over the very universities they claim are racist institutions.
With R9bn allocated to the National Student Fund, and all manner of bursaries thrown at poor students from the private sector, one would think that these protesters would grasp opportunities with both hands and study. Instead they raise issues that concern only them and their alleged feelings of alienation and isolation. Some news for these malcontents – universities are alienating places, they are by their very nature difficult and complex institutions.
Students are meant to engage and do battle with the life of the mind. Asinine slogans like “Down with Afrikaans”; “they use Afrikaans to oppress”; “the language is being used as a culture to oppress other people” are hardly the fare one expects from students who make demands. These catch phrases are as pathetic as they are meaningless.
The EFF invaded Elsenburg Agricultural College using whips on other students to prevent them from going to classes. It seems to me brute force is all they know when words fail them. I wish to suggest that it is not Afrikaans that they are against, it is their verbal incapacity to get to grips with the real issues of the day.
When Afrikaans was forced down our throats by the Afrikaner establishment in the 1970s at UWC, at least we, students, became multilingual and used the very language of “oppression” to liberate ourselves. Yes, we not only shouted “one person, one vote” but also “een boer, een moer.” Our cultural activists turned Afrikaans upside down, producing radical plays, poetry and subversive songs in Afrikaans.
By using sjamboks against fellow students, the EFF thinks it will smash its way towards the destruction of Afrikaans. But I have news for the EFF - Afrikaans is as durable as English. As a highly developed minority language, respected globally academically for its rapid scientific and cultural development, it will outlive the EFF and all the barbarians who want to destroy it. If students really want an issue, they could start by pressurising government to put money into the development of black languages just like the Afrikaner establishment is doing with their language and cultural festivals.
Ask black billionaires like Patrice Motsepe, Cyril Ramaphosa, Saci Macazoma and others to put money into the development of black languages. Instead of behaving like Blade Nzimande’s proxies, Open Stellenbosch and RhodesMustFall protesters need an intellectual vision that will steer them away from their quest to “transform” our best universities, Stellenbosch, UCT and Wits, into the many other intellectual scrapheaps dotted around SA.
If protesters claim that Afrikaans “is a language that is being used as a culture to oppress other people” then they need some serious lessons to help them deconstruct the absolute nonsense this idea contains. The “RhodesMustFall”, “Open Stellenbosch” slogans mask how vacuous their campaigns have been and the high university drop-out rates proves it. Nzimande himself admits that 40% of those admitted to higher education never get a qualification. And as much as he proposes all manner of support programmes, no bridging programme can compensate for the educational deficits caused by the ANC’s chronically inept education policy system.
To call for the head of Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib, indicates how politically ignorant our students are. A committed activist, he has dedicated virtually his whole life to the liberation struggle while many of these young revolutionaries were in nappies. Instead of perpetuating the low throughput rates at universities, the low numbers in post-graduate scholarship, and the dearth of intellectual innovation, these disgruntled students would do well to find ways to conquer these benchmarks and act as role models to the youth by working hard, instead of perpetuating the culture of intellectual sclerosis.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.