The Fire This Time

To equate the rage of South African student protestors with the official brutality of the state is the bedrock of conservatism.

Fees Must Fall protesters. Image: Nicholas Rawhani.

The fight for a zero percent tuition fee increase commanded wide breadth of support, but the subsequent, more radical trajectory of the South African student movement causes many sympathizers to pause, including progressives (if you have South African friends, just check your Facebook feed.)  This is certainly the case with the latest action at the University of Cape Town – in which students erected a corrugated metal shack on campus and burnt colonial, artwork. While the “Fuck Whites” t-shirt campaign at Wits University only got a few people exercised, the sight of paintings going up in flames has many more debating.

Social media was alight with complaints that students had gone too far, that they were squandering sympathy and that such actions undermined their cause. The latter in particular is a common form of outside commentary: assuming a firm understanding of the students’ long-term goals and the best way of reaching them, and then adjudicating every event in purely tactical terms–whether or not it furthers the cause and thus whether or not it is justified.

It’s quite natural for the Left and for the public in general to debate and prognosticate over movements in which the whole society has a stake. But the above is not a helpful way of doing so. In the first place, it seems premised on erasing the context in which events unfold. It treats the students as a unitary agent: freely choosing its own path and thus morally culpable for all outcomes and externalities. This does violence to the reality of a decentralized, horizontally organized, mass movement – one that erupted suddenly out of wellsprings of suppressed rage, and that has shifted and evolved in response to repression and subversion. Like all radical movements, methods are not always clean or neatly pre-figurative of new ideals, nor should they be. For activists on the ground it’s imperative to fight for them to be aligned with ultimate aims. But for those outside, holding a moral compass to everything that transpires, rather than analyzing real distributions of power and calling attention to the disproportionate violence of the state, is not the course of someone genuinely sympathetic to the aspirations of the movement.

The most unhinged critics suggested a slippery slope from the burning of paintings to Nazism or Fahrenheit 511. Such notions do not bear serious engagement, but since a great many of commentators seem exercised by moral absolutes on the sanctity of art – it’s worth stating the obvious on why context matters, even here. The systematic suppression of art or literature is not something any progressive movement would want to condone – it signifies degeneration and counter-revolution. But no such thing was taking place at UCT, this was not the actions of a state or militarist organization deliberately trying to erase a culture, but another symbolic act of anger on behalf of an subaltern movement persecuting a legitimate struggle for decolonization – a central domain of which is aesthetic. Of course we may wish for a more temperate solution, the relegation of those turgid paintings to some dusty museum, but the reality is that we don’t always have a choice – mass action obeys its own logic. To project a veld fire out of a bonfire on this issue, when the realities of police brutality and exclusion are so immediate, seems not only pedantic but a complete corroboration of what protestors are claiming – that black lives matter less than white insecurities.

Thankfully, the students themselves do not seem much perturbed by these responses – they are viewed as just another predictable instantiation of attempts to police black rage by a sordid establishment. It has been my honest view that such arguments have been overused by some activists – with the result that fraternal critique is not adequately distinguished from hostile denunciation. But those pressing to uncover colonial hangovers behind all of their critics have sadly been validated time and again, and this latest incident will be viewed as no exception. None of this is to suggest that the movement is beyond reproach, that we can totally separate its cause from its means, or that tactics need not be seriously dissected within the ranks and extremist elements held to account. Torching offices and buses is reckless and likely to lead only to further repression – but to equate the rage of the protestors with the official brutality of the state is the bedrock of conservatism.

Further Reading

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The king is dead

The death of the Zulu king highlights the unresolved issues that continue to shapes lives in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

The unforeseen threat

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The reluctant scientist

The late Tanzanian president, John Pombe Magufuli, was initially lauded for his no-nonsense approach to corruption. But the cracks began to appear within months of his presidency.