Culture of violence damages students' legitimate protests

04 October 2015 - 02:00 By Adam Habib

South Africa's universities are confronting an upsurge in student activism, inspired by two distinct discontents: insufficient funding for poor students, and the cultural alienation of black students at many historically white universities. These discontents, captured under the label of "transformation" or "decolonisation", are undeniably legitimate. It is unacceptable that talented students from poor communities should be denied access to higher education. Neither is it acceptable for black students to not feel at home at universities.But as we pursue transformation or decolonisation, there needs to be serious deliberation about the tactics and strategies used, and the parameters of acceptable engagement.This is all the more urgent given what we witnessed recently at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where there were violent altercations with police; buildings and vehicles were set alight, causing millions of rands of damage; and the university had to be closed.There is no doubt that there is an activist layer in the transformation or decolonisation movement that believes violence is a legitimate means of engagement. It is held by some of these activists that because poor people are subject to structural violence in highly unequal societies such as South Africa, this somehow gives these activists the right to perpetrate violence in the course of their struggles.Claiming to draw inspiration from Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, who wrote under the yoke of colonial subjugation, they misappropriate the words and intents of these activist intellectuals to justify violence in the post-colony. Profanity and threats on social media replace reasoned debate. Theatrics replace principled politics. Civil liberties are seen as a "bourgeois" distraction. There is little recognition that lives were lost in the pursuit of these liberties and that they should not be so easily traded for short-term political gain.If structural violence is the target, the irony is that the victims of this violence are not the "colonialist", but other poor students. The culture of violence is given impetus by the appeasement of some within the university who mistakenly confuse the right to protest with the right to violence and the violations of the rights of others. It is also given credence by the nonsensical application of the notion of the "just war".War can only be just when all other avenues are closed down. It can never be legitimate in a democratic society, however much the socioeconomic outcomes of the democracy are compromised.story_article_left1Accompanying this culture of violence is a vanguardist politics - a belief that the activist cohort represents an intellectual and political elite who have an advanced state of consciousness. All others are seen to have a false consciousness, a lack of understanding of the needs of the historical moment. This is very dangerous politics, for there is an assumption that the monopoly of truth is held by a minority of insiders.It is a politics that bred the Stalinism of old or the religious fundamentalism of the present. And if not intellectually challenged, it can become pervasive and create a culture within the insiders that justifies their violation of the rights of others. Where these insiders become dominant in the society, as occurred during the Cultural Revolution in China or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it leads to the murder of millions of outsiders.A final lesson that needs to be borne in mind is the necessity of trade-offs. Too often, transformation activists glibly talk about the compromises of 1994, and some even have the temerity to accuse Mandela of having sold out. But these young activists have not thought through the ahistorical character of their critique.It is too easy to criticise the 1994 pact from the perspective of 2015. Have these critics thought through the alternatives had the political pact not been entered into? Have they thought through the consequences, had they had to live through a civil war - as in Libya or Syria?This is not to suggest that the pact cannot be criticised. Neither does it mean that the post-apartheid leadership did not make mistakes. The adoption of a neoliberal programme, the enrichment that accompanied BEE, the crude cadre deployment that led to service delivery failures, the slow pace of university transformation, and many other failures should indeed be criticised. But the criticism must be grounded in the realities of what was possible, and not romanticism about a mythical revolution that was never feasible.This realism must also inform current choices. Activists have to recognise that we live in a market economy, which constrains our choices - that we live in economically challenging times, and that it is unlikely that significantly more resources are going to be directed to the university sector.In the words of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, "change happens within the limits of the possible".story_article_right2This does not mean we should give up on our ambitions, but we have to think strategically and imaginatively.For example, one of the most significant challenges facing universities is student financing. The 2016 budget has allocated R11.5-billion to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which, as we know, is not enough to cover all who require it.But the total cost of the fees for every student in the system, rich and poor, black and white, is less than R20-billion. If the financial allocation was used as collateral, banks could grant loans and easily cover the fees of all students. Granted, these students would then graduate with debt, but this is not very different from what exists now.Such a partnership between the state and banks could resolve the single biggest cause of uncertainty in student lives and instability in the university sector.Clearly, there is an urgent need for debate on political strategy within the transformation and decolonisation movement at universities. This debate needs to be grounded in the realities of the present, even if the goal is an egalitarian vision of the future. Moreover, it must be grounded in a democratic practice that commits to nonviolence and respect for the rights of others.Only then will it translate into meaningful structural reform and avoid dissipating the enormous energies that have been mobilised. Ultimately, this will not happen through the diktat of vice-chancellors or policy enunciation, but when democrats in the movement take leadership of the very struggle that they have inspired.Habib is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand and chairman of Universities South Africa. This is an edited version of the eighth annual Imam Abdullah Haron memorial lecture, which he delivered in Cape Town on Wednesday

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