The Free State

There are so many lessons from (and horrors) from the violence against black students at South Africa’s University of the Free State (for background, see here)  but here are my own observations:

(1) While movements like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have been powerful and poetic, the willingness by white Afrikaner youth at theUniversity of the Free State (UFS) to resort to brute violence to protect their interests and the level of organization displayed (availability of weapons, etcetera) suggests that the kind of decentralized, non-hierarchical, diffused, and seemingly “leaderless” mode of organization may well be inadequate for unsettling the much more organized economic and near-paramilitary concern that has dared to make itself visible in a public higher education institution 22 years after the fall of apartheid. And this is a broader issue concerning who, politically, fully demilitarized as a concession to democracy and who disbanded structures of local and grassroots organization and who did not. I think UFS shows us who’s been waiting and preparing for the moment of violent racial confrontation in South Africa and who will not be swayed by the poetics of an alternative mode of engagement
(2) The rise of#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, as I argued a few months ago, although necessary, its location in Cape Town (like at UCT) and Johannesburg (Wits University) and at Rhodes University not only eclipsed the ongoing struggles of poorer students at schools (the former technikons and “historically black universities”) like Vaal University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Tswane University of Technology, but also the struggles of students in the vocational college sector, who have been raising issues of financial and academic exclusion for years. The bodies, lives, and experiences of Wits University and UCT students were ‘sanctified’ in ways that the bodies and hardships of poorer students in the countries post-school system were not.
(3) Linked to the above (and here the parallels with the French peasantry in the wake of the French Revolution are instructive), what UFS shows us is that the shoes that have done the disproportionate and possibly more sordid pinching of the toes of black students in South Africa’s universities has not, in fact, been at the leafy Cape Towns and and Johannesburg schools, but has remained largely unchanged and unchallenged in the quiet enclaves where the level and type of racism backed by the ever-present threat of force and violence has been much more acute. Like the French peasants, who became the squeakiest wheel in Europe, lending their weight to revolutionary fervor, the students at Cape Town, Grahamstown, and Johannesburg, as we can see, have hardly had to live in a context of such abiding physical threat and they could in fact be as vocal (and daring) as what they have been precisely because the nature of their beast operates at the level of symbolic and structural violence, not sheer force. Like the French peasants, these students ( and this is not intended to diminish the validity and urgency of their cause) can hardly be said to be the most oppressed.

(4) Finally, what’s emerged at UFS can’t be addressed by the UFS’s Vice Chancellor Jonathan Jansen or by the students and I wonder even whether or not it can be resolved by means other than violence and greater force. Those images of black students volleyed between the kicks of burly white boys have stirred a different kind of feeling inside me, and one that I would not have expected to experience 22 years after democracy. This takes me back to Point 1 above: who demilitarized and did so far too soon?

Lebogang Mokwena

Lebogang Mokwena, a former South African civil servant, is a graduate student at The New School in New York.

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