THE RAPE STORY YOU MUST READ
In the wake of last year’s student protests, SANDISO NGUBANE wonders if the fairy tale is over
FORTY YEARS AGO, young people took to the streets of Soweto to protest against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. An estimated 20 000 took part in the demonstrations that began on the morning of 16 June 1976, marching from their schools to Orlando Stadium. By nightfall, dozens would be dead; shot by police, their deaths never properly recorded.
This day is recognised by many as the int that sparked the decline of the apartheid state. Sam Nzima’s photograph of a dying 13-year-old Hector Pieterson carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo was published around the world, leading to widespread condemnation and strengthened international boycotts. The government was in crisis.
While recent student movements have not been fatal, it’s hard not to draw similarities between what happened then and what started in October last year, with student movements like #AfrikaansMustFall, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. These are movements born out of frustration with the slowness of transformation. Many people have been left unable to enjoy the gains of what we were told would be a ‘rainbow nation’. That dream, emanating from the victories
‘A lot was papered over in favour of reconciliation’
of Nelson Mandela’s generation, has slowly been withering away. Today’s youth feel change can no longer be deferred.
We’ve been patient for much too long with the plodding pace of change, and I felt every bit as angry as the students who marched to Parliament in Cape Town in October last year demanding to be addressed by government on the issue of the cost of tertiary education. Many of us – young black people – don’t have the opportunities that our white, more privileged peers have.
We’ve grown weary of what often comes across as arrogance and a lack of sympathy from white South Africans who don’t acknowledge that their privilege came at the cost of our disadvantage; that monuments such as that of Cecil John Rhodes, which students successfully demanded be taken down, are a painful reminder of how black pain is often met with careless retorts, such as, ‘Get over it, apartheid is gone.’ It is as if Mandela’s rainbow nation magically did away with the inequalities and harm entrenched by 400 years of colonialism and apartheid.
Rhodes may have fallen, but the cost of higher education remains prohibitively high for most students. These are not the only issues faced by my generation, as we keep seeking change. I spoke to three young voices who agree we are over the rainbow, and while there are many challenges, one thing is very clear: the status quo must fall.
SHAEERA KALLA, 22, former president of the Students’ Representative Council at The University of the Witwatersrand Shaeera was part of the student leadership that drove #FeesMustFall countrywide. She says the decision to shut down the university was made by the Wits student body as ‘a symbolic act to display our anger and frustration at the elitist, exclusionary anti-black and anti-poor university system in South Africa’. She remains a member of the Wits Progressive Youth Alliance and in particular identi es with the principles of the ANC-a liated South African Students Congress.
‘I believe the #FeesMustFall campaign owes its success to the decision we made as students to remain non-partisan,’ she says. ‘This does not mean we were blind to our political a liations but that we worked together and respected each other for a common goal despite those di erences.’
She feels that, in spite of the 0% increase victory, the student movement is currently at its weakest. ‘This is due to both political and ideological di erences, high securitisation and intimidation of students who are politically active.’
Is there a way forward? ‘We have to ask why it is that the Constitution only becomes relevant when white privilege is being challenged,’ she says. PANASHE CHIGUMADZI, 24, author and former Ruth First Fellow ‘A lot was papered over in favour of reconciliation,’ Panashe says. ‘We didn’t get to express our discontent after almost 400 years of slavery, colonisation and apartheid.’ In addressing this, Panashe says time cannot be seen as a healer of the pain that black South Africans continue to face, more than two decades after Mandela became the country’s rst democratically elected president.
I ask what the solution is when expressions of that pain are met with dismissal. She states that the problem with the postracialised rainbow nation ideal is that it is ‘often deployed to silence our anguish’.
‘Racism is divisive. If people are serious about addressing division, they must stop being racist.’ Is political leadership the answer? ‘I’m not convinced by the current political leadership,’ she says. ‘The ANC, for instance, is a nationalist movement. They preach non-racialism, and given their politics, that is ultimately inadequate. It would be great if there was a party that could advance what is being called for.
‘There’s no ideal way of handling decolonisation,’ she says. ‘Wealth and land redistribution is a painful process, for example. We will face consequences from global whiteness, but we have to be ready to confront those challenges.’
KYLA PHIL, 25, film-maker While she is not a student, Kyla participated in the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall demonstrations in Cape Town. ‘I felt embraced by the people, and by the movement, and I also felt very aware of my presence not as a non-student, but as a South African participating in a movement for decolonisation. It was a bit bandwagon-y, but also very necessary.’
Kyla recalls holding on to a friend’s hand as she stood in the crowd that pushed back against policemen trying to keep the marching crowds out of the Parliament precinct. She recalls the State’s violence, their water cannons and stun guns, and the internal dialogue she had in the midst of everything: ‘Am I willing to die today?’
But beyond the marches, and the experience of being in that violent space, there’s much to learn. ‘The more time you spend in the space, the more you realise the dynamics, the issues, and my time there made me very aware of my positionality, and the fact that I, too, can be a violent body. I’m a cisgender woman with light-skin privilege, and you start to see whose narrative is placed at the forefront, versus those that need to and should be heard.’
In spite of the challenges that remain, the one thing that is abundantly clear is that today’s youth are driving a national discourse for change. We are not fooled by the idealism that, for a long time, has kept us hopeful that change is coming.
It was encouraging, for one, that in spite of the cracks that have become apparent, many black and white students stood together. The rainbow-nation dream may have faded, but what the youth movement of today has achieved, as the generation of 1976 did, is to set the tone for change. We must look beyond the rainbow and embrace the challenges that abound.