Remembrance of things past
Azikhwelwa was one of those slogans that used to be shouted through a loud-hailer in the townships. It meant trouble for those going to work the following morning. It meant boycotts of buses and any other forms of transport ferrying workers from their dusty townships to the white men’s towns.
As part of their efforts to exert pressure on the apartheid government to open up negotiations with banned political parties for a democratic South Africa, communities boycotted white-owned businesses, held back payment for municipal services and in some extreme cases, set alight buildings associated with the white government.
In their burning of clinics, libraries, schools and police stations, no buildings were spared; they were all part of the defiance campaign calling for democracy and the freeing of political prisoners.
These acts and others, including pressure from across the globe to isolate South Africa, eventually forced the government to start negotiations which, over time, led to the release of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela, and the first democratic election in 1994.
Since then, the ANC has occupied the hot seat of government, running the affairs of state that range from budget allocation to spending, to revenue collection and addressing past imbalances.
During the first decade of our democracy, the government prioritised housing, education and social grants as part of its redress for the previous regime’s racist policies. This resulted in the building of millions of RDP houses for the poor, while many more disadvantaged citizens benefited from the social grant system.
But over the years, a new phenomenon developed in communities where the sense of entitlement became a norm. People began demanding more houses and faster delivery; more social grant benefits and faster delivery.
When their demands were not met, society took to the streets to voice their discontent.
And when the protests did not work, we saw the country start to burn once again as clinics, schools, libraries, police stations and municipal offices went up in smoke – in the democratic dispensation.
More than a phase in our country’s short history, this has become akin to a way of life. It continues unabated while leaders and councillors keep playing politics instead of addressing the cause of such violent uprisings.
Fast forward to 2015, when students across the country began their outcry over historical names and statues. Rhodes fell, but the students were just getting started.
The dust around the Rhodes statue had hardly settled when universities proposed their increased tuition fee tariffs for the following year. Students, already overburdened by the prohibitive cost of tertiary education, came together in countrywide protest marches and an unprecedented #FeesMustFall rallying cry.
Late last year, government heeded their call and an increase in tuition fees for 2016 was scrapped. This, after relatively peaceful protests across campuses and public support for their cause.
When universities reopened earlier this month, students took to the campus grounds in protest again. This time, the issue was admission fees and some universities were forced into lockdown. Soon after, student dissent escalated to the abysmal state of accommodation at universities.
The latter sparked incidents of violence across campuses, forcing a shutdown while management tried to find solutions.
The continuing violence morphed into student in-fighting as racial clashes were recorded at the University of Free State this week, and University of Pretoria last week.
On Wednesday at North-West University’s Mahikeng campus, the administration block, science laboratory and two cars were set alight following violent clashes between students and security guards. This, after management disbanded the student representative council (SRC) and appointed another one. Students went on a rampage in fury at their unilaterally dissolving the SRC. While management had no right to disband a democratically elected SRC and appoint its own, students equally erred in by burning university property.
This behaviour takes us backwards. Have today’s students learnt nothing from their predecessors? Violence does not solve conflict. On the contrary, it fuels more and reverses gains hard won from earlier struggles.
Through dialogue the students could have engaged management on transformation and ensured the restoration of the old SRC. If management had identified individual student leaders as hooligans, they should have been suspended and disciplined internally. There was no need to change the entire leadership structure.
Now here we sit with an estimated three months of no university and hundreds of poor students who have nowhere to go while classes remain suspended.