Scenes of riot and pitched battle played out between the police and student protesters in Braamfontein in Johannesburg outside Wits University last night. These scenes are unfamiliar in the city centres, and in the middle class suburbs of South Africa, but they are familiar scenes in the various Apartheid era satellites that dot the peripheries of the metropoles. Until now, they have been successfully contained in the disarticulated and under-serviced townships and slum settlements where poor black South Africans live, often alongside refugees and immigrants from other parts of the continent. So it comes as a shock to the universities and the urbane middle classes that the ordinarily peripheral has descended upon their spaces with such intensity. To them, it belongs elsewhere.
There has been a rush to attribute blame, and in the process causality proves to be the first casualty, an error of judgement that is ordinarily inexcusable for academics and intellectuals, but understandable given the heightened subjectivity that the anxiety and paranoia that uncontrollable eruptions of violence brings. Without pause for thought, the violence is wielded as evidence of the need for – and justification for – the use of state force. Yet little thought is paid to whether the use of force in the initial stages of the student rebellion, served to produce more violence. In biblical terms, “violence begats more violence”, and when it has escalated beyond all reason and become a mode of engagement, its origins appear ever more blurry.
Yet if we are to solve it, and to break with the modalities before they become set in for the long term, before it becomes the language through which contestation is manifested and concessions are brokered, we must bring an extra sensitivity to our perspective. We need to be able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, before we are able to broker peace. That is, we need to acknowledge each other’s humanity, and the balance of power that resides between us. Brinkmanship and hastily manufactured statements attributing blame, are hardly likely to serve any other purpose than to polarise the camps further.
We are dealing with the symptoms of a national crisis, one that runs deep into the very fabric of our highly unequal society, not just in terms of wealth, but in terms of power and privilege. There is no way around that. It should be the starting point for increasing understanding. When the riots broke out in the French Revolution, the madness of the mob broke loose upon the streets, consuming the society that had until that point proven unable to channel the acute, festering discontent within its core. Hannah Arendt described their rage as derived from a sense of impotence, of being unable to endure – yet no longer able to alleviate – their suffering.
In South Africa, those who have been made invisible by their marginality and their poverty, who have endured great suffering, and who have little means through which to exert power – whether through a dearth of structured grassroots organisation, or through the deafness of power – are rebelling from the roots up, spearheaded by youth facing the prospects of a dim future. And this rebellion threatens to spread like a wildfire in the dry grass that has come to symbolise our collective inaction. It has happened before, so we should be able to choose a different course of action this time.
Those who are calling for yet more bullets, more state-led force, should be aware that it took us a very long time to emerge from the violence of the 1980s and early 1990s. It would be a great error, to feed this fire, to push it over the brink, which it is close to, but has not yet breached. Further down the rabbit-hole lies states of emergency and special presidential powers; we all know where that leads, we’ve been there before. What we need now, is pause for thought, to reflect honestly and deeply on what in our society reproduces this violence, and what decision-making serves to escalate it.
The choice to pause, is sure to have consequences that institutions, and government, will have to scramble and adapt to correct when the dust has settled. But it is the correct course of action. Masculine brinkmanship – fuelled by personality conflicts and the like – have brought us to the precipice. Stepping back from it requires a courage not usually asked of us as a society, and especially the academics who shoulder the burden of ensuring the continuity of institutions in South Africa. More of the same is not going to make a difference now, and it would be insane to plough ahead into the unknown without the reflection, remorse and mourning that the moment requires.
This fire, is still one that can be contained and converted, by giving appropriate expression to its root causes and by engaging in sincere, meaningful engagement. It is not a moment that those who helped bring about can simply shrug off as the sole responsibility of the other side. The imbalance of power needs to be openly acknowledged as well, that there is a vast difference between state power and that of the youths who openly confront it in the streets. This is a moment where visionary leadership can establish a model that the rest of society, especially those on the peripheries, so desperately need. We need to be honest, and confess that we haven’t made the effort – as urban middle class society – to address this simmering discontent until it arrived on our doorstep.
We know that this can get much worse. And it is not just the 1980s, but the 2008 xenophobic outbreaks that should serve to caution us about where we are headed. The leadership that is required needs to draw on a broader set of actors. This is no longer a situation that VCs can deal with alone. Government has effectively handed them the boiling cauldron of failed promises that is symptomatic of broad societal failures; they cannot possibly cope with this burden in isolation. We have many leaders who have seen this before. It’s time to bring them into the fold, and to act as a collective, rather than simply employing them in roles as mediators. It’s time to demonstrate what we are capable of when we recognise each other’s humanity, time to go beyond the brash characterisations and name-calling. Only by putting ourselves in each other’s shoes, and recognising our common humanity, can the solutions to this crisis be found. Unity is strength, and we should resist further attempts to divide us in this moment.