After a tumultuous night during which a crowdful of noises was heard over the course of several hours, the morning felt calm. It is eerie to drive around a town that looks this empty.
The only evidence I spotted of the rioting the night before was a few burned out barricades, smouldering remains of some tyres and surprising amounts of litter. I am passing through a South African university town and students are angry. Fees, they say, must fall.
The morning news on the radio is trying to keep track of the status of the protest leader, who was apparently arrested. And then perhaps released; it is unclear, and honestly he will be fine at the end of the day as long as he didn’t do anything unlawful.
This is the new South Africa, right? On TV every hour on the hour someone is talking about the other major universities that are swept up in this wave of demands for an affordable tertiary education.
Massive crowds of skinny people in skinny jeans running around, dancing, chanting and sometimes declaiming from the top of a wall. Unsurprisingly they all sound exactly the same. Youth protest leaders may want to look into collaborating with political science or literature students to expand the number of their catch phrases beyond three.
This feeling must be envy. I think back to the planned Ukuta demonstration and how easily the rhetoric of “security” was used to quell what may have been a very necessary encounter with the state.
We do not have much of a culture of resistance and protest, though, and were easily and efficiently quelled. This peace that we negotiate with each other is dynamic, but sometimes it can be hard to keep that in mind when things seem so static.
Back in South Africa, I am now watching students chase other students out of classrooms and libraries and dining halls. Staff are hastily closing shops and eateries, the journalists documenting all this are clearly doing so by surfing the crest of the protest wave so they can record the dismay and harried faces of the people being swept out of the way of this movement.
Irritation is certainly competing with the envy I feel for these South African youth. The culture of protest is deeply a part of the political dynamic of this country I am visiting and has been used to great effect. There’s always a dark side, though, isn’t there?
I sympathise with the students trying to make tertiary education affordable for as many people as possible. There are also a host of ulterior motives and consequences to these actions.
Being far past student age I worry about the feasibility of their demands — where the money will come from. I think about the corruption scandals that have rocked the nation, as well as the struggle to build a more equal society… ha!
I wonder if the students will at some point begin to ask themselves about the deeper politics of this situation. Beyond the fiercely appealing rhetoric of fairness is the hard work of asking whether their own beloved party has anything to do with the current state of affairs.
Anyways, I wish them luck. One day, sooner than they imagine, they will not be so skinny, nor have much time to shake their fists in the face of authority. Will their actions have changed the society they live in enough that, well, they might have actually finished their studies and afforded it? I hope so.
But they put me in mind of a few years ago when you couldn’t move in civil society for fear of tripping over a 20-something-year-old Egyptian blogger. They were our gurus then, the fresh face of possibility. Flown all over the world to teach the rest of us how the Arab Spring could refresh our own struggling democratic roots and shoots.
It is 2016 now and mostly we’re concerned with keeping young Arabs from becoming dangerous? It is a confusing world.
The saying is that the only constant is change. The question is what amount of agency we have over this change when we try to engage in it. Where do movements move to? I don’t know and perhaps it does not matter.
Perhaps our duty is simply to move at all. I am back to envying the South African students, and wondering whether I should hope for the same dynamism back in my own polity.
Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, http://mikochenireport.blogspot.com. E-mail: [email protected]