Protesters are fast alien­at­ing their sup­port base

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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