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

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

Breaking the chains of indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.

The two Africas

In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.

A vote of no confidence

Although calling for the cancellation of Nigeria’s February elections is counterintuitive, the truth is that they were marred by fraud, voter suppression, technical glitches and vote-buying.