‘Sit up and listen’
Professor says the protests by students at universities highlight the failure of the older generation to complete the revolution in a post-apartheid SA
The new wave of student activism has been characterised by a strong black consciousness theme, a fierce rejection of the rainbow nation rhetoric, protest action and the unapologetic disruption of universities.
Simphiwe Sesanti, associate professor of journalism, media and philosophy at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, said the students’ actions pointed to the failure of the older generation to “complete the revolution”.
“Anything that is left incomplete is always bound to resurface. In 1994, there was a haste to speak about what we are not, instead of speaking about what we are. I’m referring to the concept of nonracialism,” he said.
“Africans found themselves in a system that had already been there, which had been constructed and perfected by white people. In this system, black people were welcomed in. They lived by the standards and on the basis of white people.”
Sesanti said contributing to this state of affairs was the realisation by many black students that as they came closer to their professional lives, their prospects were bleak – even though they were articulate and well educated.
Sesanti was not surprised by the emotions that had been simmering for a long time and were ignited by activist Chumani Maxwele, who threw faeces at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.
Although the older generation had witnessed South Africa’s history of student activism in the 1970s and 1980s, it was now silent. Many dismissed
COBUS PRINSLOO, Graphics24 the new movement as a passing phase that could not compare to the fight against apartheid.
Sesanti admitted that older black voices had been silent. “The reality with the older generation is that we realise we have not taken the revolutionary movement to its conclusion. So when these young black people raise the shortfalls of our revolution, some of these [older generation] are having their consciences pricked. We are feeling guilty because we know we did not complete the process. Instead, we were assimilated,” he said.
“It has got to do with a sense of embarrassment and a sense of shame that these young people are exposing us to the truth that what has been taking place has been a façade.
“It is not genuine; we have not arrived. We don’t want to confront the kinds of truths these young people are advancing. The best way for us to escape this is to condemn them because, if they are right, what are we doing to support them?”
All the student movements interviewed told City Press they had no leadership structures and acted as a collective. They said collective leadership protected individuals from being targeted by university management.
Sesanti said: “What it reveals is that there is an element of mistrust. The students feel a sense of powerlessness, which is a reality for them.
“In this state of powerlessness, they want to create a sense of solidarity that is going to protect them.
“Leaders of institutions need to take proactive measures to suggest what can and needs to be done, and invite these students to participate in activities that will address the issues. They need to provide a guarantee that students will not be victimised if they came forward and expressed themselves.”
Sesanti said condemning the students’ actions alienated them even further.
“We don’t know the kinds of lives they are experiencing, the psychological pain, the emotional difficulties they are going through.
“So, instead of condemning them, we should listen and understand them first. From there, we can begin to raise a moral voice.”
He said as long as the students’ concerns were ignored, the activism movement would continue.