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Time to be grown-up about student protests

Feb 29 2016 06:56
Mandi Smallhorne

“THE officers fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse the students, who were protesting university education reform and police brutality.

"The protests turned violent after student demonstrators set fire to rubber tires and debris to block traffic in the capital's main street. The students also threw rocks at security forces while demanding an end to ‘police repression’.”

Familiar, not so? But it did not take place at Tuks or North West University. It took place in Santiago, Chile, in the middle of 2015.

Chile, like South Africa, faces the legacy of an oppressive past, written into its education system and, student leaders say, perpetuating inequality. In the UK, student protests also routinely ‘turn violent’ and see the heavy hand of the law moving in.

Among many other 2015 protests, students at the London School of Economics and Political Science occupied admin offices and used the space to “…focus and refine the demands we are making as a movement on issues of free education, workers’ rights, university democracy and governance, liberation and ethics”.

Right now, 18 universities in India have been shut down by student protests against the arrest of a prominent student leader on charges of ‘sedition’.

And in Canada last year, where Quebec’s students have been engaged in activism since a 2011 protest against fee hikes, tear-gas was used, and someone commented: “The kind of violence that you see like last night serves only to galvanize protesters.” A word in your ear, SAPS and campus security?

Student protest has been with us a long, long time – think, for example, of the great student strike at the University of Paris in 1229, which lasted two years and wrung concessions from the powers-that-were.

Young people leave school and head to what are supposed to be places of learning to think independently, to question the status quo and received wisdom. That in itself is a powerful recipe for dissent. Which is not bad – it’s healthy. Students are like canaries in the mine, warning of underlying societal problems.

But add to it the current circumstances of higher education all around the world – in Britain, for example, students says that the cost not just of their fees but of living is turning university education into a privilege available only to the elite. Pile onto that the even greater inequalities plaguing higher education in Chile, India, South Africa and other countries and you’ve got the proverbial timebomb.

“Inequalities in access to higher education result in socio-economic inequalities in the society which, in turn, accentuate inequalities in education. In fact, it is a cyclic chain of inequalities: inequalities in access to higher education result in inequities in access to labour market information, which result in inequalities in employment and participation in labour market, resulting in inequalities in earnings contributing in turn to socio-economic and political inequalities.” (How Inclusive Is Higher Education in India? Jandhyala Tilak, July 13 2015) This could have been written in South Africa.

“Why are we surprised about the youth uprising?” asked one person on Facebook. “It's been just over two decades of us all enduring a rainbow nation with unresolved issues and gaps of inequality that widen every day.”

But so many do seem to be surprised. So many adults, sounding off about barbarism and the destruction of property. Demanding a ‘firm hand’.

You’re doing it wrong, people. I feel like I’m inside an echo chamber and what’s reverberating back to me are what I heard as a student, back in the 1970s, when we ran helter-skelter from the teargas and water cannon and the terrifying might of the law. “Hooligans; thugs; langharige opstokers.”

What, have we learnt nothing? Yes, you do get the occasional youngster who gets high on smashing and breaking, the outsider who joins in because he loves the action. But on the whole, the students involved are earnest, driven, idealistic and, in so many situations, acting out of real pain, genuine belief in their cause.

Sending in the police and the army did not work in the 1970s or 1980s, did it? A more constructive option would be to follow Max du Preez’s advice: take the wind out of their sails. Behave like adults; do not rise to provocation, do not take the simple route of violence. (That business on the rugby field, for example: what in sweet heaven’s name were parents and grown-ups doing egging on confrontation?)

Interrogate with honest intent the students’ motives. And dig deep: what’s coming to the surface here dominoes in from far-flung sites of pain and frustration, from the decades of no-action politics which have enriched a few but left the economy very much as it was (oh come on, you know it is!) and tarnished the dream of freedom.

Take their pain seriously and don’t be dismissive. They may use certain demands as memes, memes that you reject, but what’s underneath that is real; be the grown-ups and respect their anger, treat them with dignity.

We’ve had red flag after red flag in this country. Layer on top of this current upheaval a dramatic increase in food prices and a weakening rand, all of which will leave these students hungry and many families starving, and we could be in terrible trouble.

Leadership seems to be failing us in this crisis, so it’s in our hands. For South Africa’s sake, think before you react or comment with a kneejerk. For South Africa’s sake, let’s work together, with humble respect for each other – business leaders, community leaders, student leaders – to find solutions.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  student protests


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