A black coated Nylophor fence transverses the Union Building lawns the day #FeesMustFall marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The fence creating a ceremonial space for protest below and, at the top, the Union Buildings edifice with a tall sculpture of former president Nelson Mandela with his arms wide open in cruel irony. The fence is secured by Bekafix posts and impenetrable (or so we thought). To others, students from Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Soshanguve campus, especially, it was relative – it could be bent and broken and torn apart: it could be transformed from a deterrent into something else, even an entrance, perhaps. In tearing the fence open TUT Soshanguve students altered the relationship between the State and its citizens at that moment of ceremony.
They folded the distance between power and people upon itself, shortening the distance by half. One got the feeling that this particular protest action was not on the cards for most people who were in attendance—for that’s what most of us were there to do, to attend a ceremony where President Jacob Zuma would speak and, hopefully, placate our frustrated energy and tell us something we could take home, something that would render all the effort of driving or taking the Gautrain to Pretoria, worth it.
But TUT Soshanguve – who had by now been derided on social media as ‘hooligans’ – had already muddied our symbolic defiance of the State and made matters worse for everyone. They had caused us great panic and even greater regret to having come to this untethering of Pretoria’s urban youths, to experience the stripped down version of revolution; the one were the state shows its fangs vis-a-vis its heavy handed riot police with its rubber bullets and tear gas and stun grenades and what have you; and the gathered residuum retaliating by equally destructive means – a brick here, a burnt down mobile toilet or two there. My friend and I had stood far back enough to notice the happenings by the fence. Each time the TUT Soshanguve students made head way with the fence the police stung them with stun grenades. Every single stun grenade was met with a “Happy!” from the students as though it were New Year’s.
It was this joy in that which was so terrifyingly violent that was so tragic, which, perhaps pointed to the fact that those among us who were committed to a non-violent protest should intervene; yet at this moment, at this proximity with the signs of a nascent revolution, with the real risk of catching a rubber bullet to the leg or worse, one’s outrage at the sight of such violence froze inside one’s marrow. So one tweeted it instead. We all knew something about what was happening and we all knew not to intervene. Violence of the State against its own citizens usually points to its illegitimacy than its power. It points to cracks in the syntax of power.
Tear gas canisters fell from the sky – from a police helicopter – onto anyone and everyone. Teargas chokes, suffocates and repels. It stings the eyes. From here on it was clear that the president wouldn’t come out. TUT Soshanguve students were still working their way through the fence, in the teargas filled air.
As we watched the coterie of sinewy TUT Soshanguve students finally rip through the Nylophor fence, uproot the Bekafix posts and put their hands up in the air in surrender before getting down on their knees, we were somewhat relieved. It became apparent they only wanted to tear down the boundaries of symbolic violence that separated State and citizen. They wanted to be allowed into the space that purports to be theirs to own. In their tenacity to tear down the fence that transverses the Union Building, they had succeeded in restoring the Union Buildings into its proper function as a public institution.
We ambled in after them through the hole in the fence in quiet disbelief. To some us the fence had a justification somewhere in the back of our heads, if one cared to look there and rummage with both hands. The fence needed to be there, this we knew. We are accustomed to high walls and electric fences. We know boundaries and borders and whom they are meant to deter. But here, at the Union Buildings, in this supposedly public space, our grasp of borders and privileged spaces nearly made a mockery of our own supposed intelligence. Here were these so called Hooligan demonstrating to us how to communicate with a government that only speaks fluent violence in its quest to preserve middle class illusions and maintain upper class affluence while defending its own unbridled corruption. There was a genuine, visceral sense of having surmounted the impossible as you walked over the pulled down fence, when you drank from the sprinklers with your bare hands and dabbed your teargassed face with the cool water inside the beautifully manicured lawns along the first steps of the Union Buildings.
People gathered tiredly under the tall trees and conversed. The riot police, which were not so long ago a sign of imminent danger were now but negligible gnomes – forming part of the landscaping. To think that to get here it took less than 50 people out of a couple of thousands – potentially – had given me a glimpse of the power we have as citizens when we choose to act. Again, it was clear the president wasn’t going to come out. If I were him I’d have done the same. Here were people who tore the fence that divided them from power, and with it tore open their hearts and bled right there in front of us in fits of rage for justice, for their right (not privilege) to access quality higher education. My president enjoys a good laugh but The Hooligans had demonstrated that today would not be a laughing matter. There would be no chortling and clearing of the throat; there would be no meandering around a point and beating about the bush. The language of violence from the State had, on this day, found its mirror. Even better, it had found its partner that would finish its sentences. The Hooliganism of State had finally met what it had procreated in poor communities. And we stood there, stunned in clumps of bewildered middle class markers, cloaked in suburban revolutionary language, caught in the middle of a conversation between two lovers, who had sized each other up well before hand and had met on this day on terms that only lovers understand.
As we drove onto the M1 to Johannesburg the first shots were fired by the riot police and by the time we arrived at Wolves on Corlett Drive in Illovo for a beer, the first police van had been set alight. By the time our partners came to meet us after work, there were students who wanted to abandon the revolution and go home. And by the time I got down to write this, a few universities had agreed to end the exploitive practice of outsourcing their general staff, some haven’t. The protests continue.
If anything, that fateful Friday exposed not only the hubris of power and language of state and the way in which that language and its violence inscribes itself on vulnerable bodies; it revealed the fissures in the solidarity between privilege black bodies and not so privileged ones in times of struggle; it pointed to the modulations of similitude within the student movement itself – where common ground reflects common convenience and where and when shifts occur to reflect different class conveniences within struggle itself. The fractures in the student movement are a mere microcosm of the heterogeneous experience of black bodies in South Africa, and as such, were to be expected. In the end, it revealed that fidelity to revolution becomes a matter of convenience or necessity depending on one’s proximity to the centre of economic and political power.