Protesters are fast alienating their support base
IN THE Twitter generation where #EverythingMustFall, it is probably appropriate to describe our current situation as “It’s complicated” – one of the options one has when describing one’s relationship status on Facebook.
The education crisis engulfing our tertiary institutions can be resolved, although it appears everyone is shouting past one another and no one is really listening to what others have to say.
It does not help when poorly trained police and security get involved in trying to defuse what has become an increasingly volatile situation at universities throughout the country.
It also does not help when race gets dragged into what is essentially an economic issue and when students appear to be shifting their goalposts and determined to only go back to classes once their demand for “free, decolonised education” has been met.
The scenes we saw playing out on campuses over the past few weeks have been disconcerting to anyone who wants to see our democracy succeed and life improve for the majority of South Africans.
As a parent who put three daughters through university, I support the call for free education, although this is based on my personal situation more than what realistically can be afforded by government.
My daughters did not qualify for student aid or bursaries so we had to do it the hard way, paying tens of thousands every couple of months in order to make sure they could remain at their chosen institutions.
There are a couple of things that bother me about the protests, but I have been struggling to verbalise these for fear of being seen to be reactionary. This is probably the same dilemma faced by students (black and white) who support the call for free education but do not want to lose an academic year.
The main thing that concerns me is not where the money is going to come from to pay for free education. Where there is a will there is a way, and the government would probably reprioritise spending if this is what it decides.
And this is precisely what worries me. South Africa is a complicated country and providing free education to students is but one of our concerns. While we have (had) some world-class universities, our primary and secondary school system leaves much to be desired. I have not seen much of a link made between the students’ demands and education in general.
I also worry about things such as housing and job creation which, many would argue, should probably be more of a priority than education.
But more than that, when I was introduced to activism as a youngster, I was taught all our struggles are interlinked and that was why we had to occupy activist positions in student, youth, community, worker, women, sport and religious organisations, among others.
I don’t see this happening now and it appears almost as if the students are fighting a battle on their own. Even the support that was generated last year when parents stood up in support of the students’ demands seems to have faded.
There are probably some of the more militant students who would want to hold out for as long as they possibly can in the mistaken belief all their demands will be met.
But part of engaging in militant activity is knowing when to strike and when to withdraw. If you continue too long, you run the risk of alienating part of your support base.
A few months after I became a journalist at a small paper called the Cape Herald, we went on strike for better pay. We discovered our white colleagues with the same experience as us were earning more than double in most cases.
The strike, which started in our newsroom, quickly spread throughout the country. Management finally gave in and agreed to increase our salaries. We decided to go back to work because our primary demand had been met.
However, some colleagues in Johannesburg and Durban opted to remain on strike because management had not met some of the other demands we had added to our list.
The result was that our union became divided and much weaker, thereby strengthening management’s hand. The union took years to recover. Despite the heightened emotions and the passion the students feel for their cause, they cannot afford to fight blindly and run the risk of alienating people who might have been sympathetic to their cause.
There needs to be some pragmatism in order to save the academic year and allow students the space to regroup and continue their fight.
You cannot ride roughshod over people and force them to support you. When we were engaged in the Struggle against apartheid, we did not force the world to support us, but we engaged people to win their loyalties, even though it sometimes took long to do so.
The students need to understand one cannot have free education at any cost and, in the process, destroy universities.
I was nervous about thinking aloud on this topic, because now I am probably going to be branded a sell-out. But insults have never stopped me from expressing how I feel, especially about issues that affect this country all of us love so much.