Reaping the whirlwind of RMF

John Kane-Berman says that what started with excrement thrown on a statue, has ended with R300m of damage to property

"Rhodes must fall" and "buildings must burn"

It starts with excrement thrown on a statue and ends with R300 million rands' worth of damage to university property. Quite a high price for hailing the vandal who threw the excrement as a hero, as so many people did, among them politicians, academics, university administrative staff, journalists, and other members of the middle class thrilled with the excitement of it all. Even the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, seems to be shocked by the damage inflicted during student "protests" in the 2015-2016 financial year.

The University of Cape Town (UCT), origin of the "protests" successfully demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, got off relatively lightly. Damage to property there amounted to R3.2 million. But the University of the North West suffered R151 million in damage, while R47 million worth of destruction was inflicted at the University of the Western Cape.   

It will be interesting to see how many alumni of all these institutions cough up as they struggle to meet escalating student demands while fees have been frozen by order of President Jacob Zuma. It will be argued that violence and destruction were the work of a minority. This may be true, but it does not wash when a policy of appeasement was followed right from the start.

UCT in fact continues this policy with its removal of paintings that some people find offensive. Does this institution no longer understand freedom of expression? If it does understand it, is it no longer willing to defend it? At what stage will UCT actually stop being a university?

Right from the start, of course, the seriousness of what was happening was played down by the use of euphemisms. Throwing "poo" somehow doesn't sound quite as bad as throwing "shit", although the workers - no doubt black - who had to clean up the statue of Rhodes probably didn't see things in quite such delicate terms as "poo". Many an academic excused the vandalism as a legitimate expression of "black pain". Is R300 million worth of damage also then an expression of "black pain"?

There is a tragic irony in all this. Today's students enjoy rights and freedoms their parents and grandparents could only dream about, and for which many of them paid a high price. Black students were prohibited from attending white universities without permits, and the black universities were subject to ministerial control. Voicing critical opinions on black campuses was especially risky. Books were banned, and so were a number of student leaders. Some were taken into detention without trial and tortured. Others were deported or hounded out of the country.

Yet university students managed to make their views clear without resorting to the kind of destruction we have seen over the past year. When schoolchildren in Soweto and elsewhere went on the rampage in 1976, they did so in response to shootings by the police and in desperate protest against a cruel and inhuman system which denied millions of people a political voice. Today's students have no such excuse.

The real victims of their violence are the thousands of students who had no part in their behaviour, but whose own studies and lives have been so wantonly, and often violently, disrupted. And among those who betrayed them are the misguided academics, writers, and other members of the intelligentsia who applauded as mob rule took over.   

Dr Nzimande proclaims himself "astounded" by what has happened, but as a leading communist he comes from a political tradition which embraces the use of violence. Although the context was different, Simon Schama's words in his study of the French Revolution are still apt: "The dilemma for successive generations of politicians who graduated from rhetoric to administration was that they owed their own power to precisely the kind of rhetoric that made their subsequent governance impossible." 

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.