Lead­ers have to act de­ci­sively and they have to lis­ten

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

WHEN mem­bers of Par­lia­ment left the Medium Term Bud­get speech of Fi­nance Min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, they might have seen the de­bris in Plein Street, which was the af­ter­math of clashes be­tween po­lice and stu­dents de­mand­ing “free, qual­ity, de­colonised and Afro­cen­tric ed­u­ca­tion”.

The MPs might also have seen the bricks strewn in the road and they might have no­ticed a smashed win­dow at a Roe­land Street fur­ni­ture store, the un­for­tu­nate vic­tim of an an­gry crowd. They might have en­coun­tered some stu­dents who stayed be­hind af­ter the protests, hav­ing man­aged to avoid the po­lice and blend in with the pub­lic.

And surely, they would have no­ticed the huge po­lice pres­ence out­side Par­lia­ment – in­clud­ing sev­eral ar­moured ve­hi­cles and all man­ner of firearms – all meant to pro­tect the peo­ple in­side Par­lia­ment from those try­ing to be heard.

They might also have seen near the en­trance to Tuyn­huis the rolled up barbed wire, which had ear­lier been used to block off Par­lia­ment from pro­test­ers.

As I was walk­ing up Plein Street on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, when the ac­tion had shifted to­wards the rail­way sta­tion, I could not help think­ing about what hap­pened in the past few months to get us to this point and whether all this could have been pre­vented by more de­ci­sive lead­er­ship.

I also thought about what our politi­cians, the lead­ers we elected to rep­re­sent us in Par­lia­ment, think about all of this.

Would they be pre­pared to ac­cept that some­thing has gone wrong in our so­ci­ety? Would they be pre­pared to ad­mit what has gone wrong? Would they be pre­pared to ac­cept they might have played a role in fo­ment­ing what is hap­pen­ing, if only be­cause they have be­come com­pletely out of touch with our so­ci­ety and do not have a clue how to ad­dress the real (and lit­er­ally burn­ing is­sues) in our so­ci­ety? Or would they blame every­one else, a stance which ap­pears to be the norm for South African politi­cians?

While the politi­cians and in­vited guests were sit­ting in­side Par­lia­ment, lis­ten­ing to the min­is­ter of fi­nance des­per­ately try­ing to stave off a credit down­grade, and giv­ing him a stand­ing ova­tion, the stu­dents out­side were de­ter­mined to make sure that their is­sue, free ed­u­ca­tion, re­mains a se­ri­ous pri­or­ity for the gov­ern­ment.

It is highly un­likely that those in­side Par­lia­ment would have heard the com­mo­tion out­side as stu­dents en­gaged in run­ning bat­tles with the po­lice.

But it is re­ally about whether they are able to lis­ten beyond the noise gen­er­ated dur­ing protests.

What is hap­pen­ing in ed­u­ca­tion is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of a broader un­hap­pi­ness about the di­rec­tion our coun­try has been tak­ing, es­pe­cially over the past few years.

There is a per­cep­tion that the po­lit­i­cal elite are more con­cerned about lin­ing their own pock­ets and sort­ing out their friends and fam­i­lies, at the ex­pense of the ma­jor­ity. This has re­sulted in dis­dain for the law and con­sti­tu­tion, un­less it helps to fur­ther the agenda of this po­lit­i­cal elite, and what has been seen as abuse of com­pli­ant state re­sources while try­ing to un­der­mine those state in­sti­tu­tions where the in­cum­bents are try­ing to ful­fil their con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tions.

I do not sup­port vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially not in a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy. But what if im­por­tant voices are not be­ing heard in a democ­racy? What meth­ods should be used to force those with power to lis­ten?

Our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers can no longer pre­tend it is busi­ness as usual in South Africa. We can also not pre­tend what we are see­ing is a sign of a ma­tur­ing democ­racy. A ma­tur­ing democ­racy is one in which we are able to ar­gue and dis­agree and then move for­ward, based on con­sen­sus or a ma­jor­ity de­ci­sion. What we have seen in the past few months, re­lated to the stu­dent de­mands, has been in­de­ci­sion, which has the po­ten­tial to set back our hard-won demo­cratic gains.

I am glad the stu­dents took their protests to Par­lia­ment, be­cause that is where the power lies to change their sit­u­a­tion, pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively. Vice-chan­cel­lors of univer­si­ties work within bud­gets and other con­straints and can­not rea­son­ably be ex­pected to de­liver on free ed­u­ca­tion with­out se­ri­ous in­put from the gov­ern­ment and, pos­si­bly, the pri­vate sec­tor.

Protests need to move off cam­pus, but at the same time the stu­dents need to find ways of con­vinc­ing scep­ti­cal mem­bers of the pub­lic that they re­main com­mit­ted not only to their cause but also to the cause of turn­ing South Africa into the great coun­try we all know it can be­come.

We need to be able to see their protests within the con­text of im­prov­ing our coun­try and not just as an­other de­mand for some­thing free, with­out any­one tak­ing any re­spon­si­bil­ity to de­liver some­thing in re­turn, an ap­proach we are good at in South Africa.

It was in­ter­est­ing that the fi­nance min­is­ter, who was ex­cluded by the pres­i­dent from the com­mit­tee meant to find so­lu­tions to the ed­u­ca­tion cri­sis, was the one who ac­cepted the stu­dents’ mem­o­ran­dum. How­ever, we will need more than sym­bol­ism to avoid the shut­ting down of univer­si­ties, a move which could have dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects on the coun­try and the econ­omy.

Let’s see what our lead­er­ship can de­liver, other­wise I’m afraid what hap­pened out­side Par­lia­ment on Wed­nes­day will be­come the norm and our “ma­ture democ­racy” will de­scend into chaos from which we might not be able to re­cover.

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