Burn, the beloved country
Fire, fire, fire. Why do we burn so much? In 2005, when residents of Khutsong went on the rampage – setting alight houses, libraries and community halls – because they objected to new demarcation boundaries, the then head of government communications Joel Netshitenzhe warned against rewarding such violence by giving in to the community’s demands.
It sounded callous and was hardly music to the ears of the people of Khutsong, but it was an important admonishment.
Netshitenzhe warned of creating “perverse incentives” in reacting to the violence by caving in to demands. A few years later, his boss, Thabo Mbeki, was removed from office and government duly responded positively to the people of Khutsong.
So, as schools, universities and trains are burnt down almost daily, we have to wonder if we are not reaping the rewards of refusing to listen to Netshitenzhe’s wise words.
This week, as South Africa celebrated the University of Fort Hare’s 100-year anniversary, the build-up to the celebrations was marred by fires as students burnt buildings and their contents.
The auditorium building at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) was also fire-bombed; the costs of the damage amount to more than R100 million. Damage was also done to the computer labs above the auditorium. And more than 23 schools were burnt in one weekend in Vuwani, where residents are resisting the demarcation for a new municipality.
A member of UJ Fees Must Fall was quoted as saying that students believe that the only way to be heard is by burning down buildings.
On Friday, the presidency issued a statement rejecting comments that violent protests are the order of the day because this is the language that government understands best and it responds only when there is mayhem.
These two statements go to the heart of the problem: the perception that legitimate demands are not recognised as such until incendiary action is taken. It is a mightily dangerous perception, which is feeding a culture of impunity.
The government should treat this as a national emergency and move fast to create a culture of responsiveness within its ranks. If not, we risk being in a permanent state of revolution.