Mary de Haas makes a call to abandon violence in #FeesMustFall student protests
"Our forefathers were not heard until they went on strike, and retaliated by burning and demolishing stuff to get their voices heard… Our fathers attained democracy by acting out, and we will get the #feestofall by acting out."
These sentiments, expressed by University of KwaZulu-Natal commerce student, Simangele Mbanjwa, in a recent media opinion piece, are a sad indictment of the way in which using violence in protests against injustice and corruption has become a norm.
But the reference to previous generations attaining democracy by "acting out" is a gross oversimplification since the lives of black people under apartheid cannot be compared with the challenges university students are now facing and this trivialises the struggles they engaged in.
Ironically, all evidence points to much of the pre-1994 protest violence, including the burning and demolishing of what was then the University of Natal property, being fuelled by the hidden hand of the apartheid security apparatus. While it is by no means proven that all the recent damage to university property was caused by its students, protest action can easily be hijacked by opportunistic forces unless all possible steps are taken by the protesters to prevent that from happening.
By the 1970s there was increasing infiltration of groupings opposed to apartheid by its police. Many feared to speak openly, including on the telephone.
A letter writer to The World newspaper before its 1977 banning opined that in a grouping of three people, one would probably be a police informer. By the late 1970s, the state stepped up its campaign to remove whole communities out of "white" South Africa into Bantustans and, at a mass meeting of affected communities at a hall in Durban in 1981, one of the targeted communities – Chesterville – was represented by struggle veteran Pitness "Stalwart" Similane.
During the meeting, Similane became agitated, and informed me that a woman who had just arrived (name given), claiming to represent Chesterville, was linked to the security policeman who had been keeping a watch on him when he was charged in the 1956 Treason Trial. This woman was at that stage working to ingratiate herself with the Black Sash.
By the 1980s, the state had devised its total strategy to deal with what it perceived as the total onslaught, with military extending its tentacles into civil society.
This was the context in which the student activists operated, and many of them paid dearly for their brave struggles, including with their lives.
The cream of provincial youth leadership was among those targeted by police or vigilantes in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were waves of detentions, often accompanied by torture, and various other forms of abuse.
In March 1987, a 17-year-old female KwaMashu SRC member was abducted in town, driven by disguised men to an unknown area, questioned about the identities of other SRC members, and assaulted repeatedly by men who clearly had information about her.
When she refused to take off her clothes, they held her down while one ran a knife over her clothes, cutting into her, before cutting and ripping off her underwear and taking turns to rape her, laughing as they did so. They finally decided to let her live, and dumped her, blindfolded, in uMlazi, where a resident gave her money to travel home.
The day before this incident the bodies of seven schoolboys, who had been abducted, were found near the border of KwaMashu and a nearby shack area.
Such were the dangers faced by student activists. Some were turned by their detention into informers, but the police often framed people as informers, knowing they would probably be killed.
One of them murdered in Chesterville was teacher Philemon Khanyile. Notorious security policeman, Frank Bennetts, described to the Truth Commission how he had framed Khanyile.
By the late 1980s many comrades were battling to maintain discipline as their ranks had been infiltrated by com-tsotsis, criminals who the police allowed to operate with impunity.
It was in this context that a grenade exploded at the then University of Natal in May 1992, causing huge damage to a chemistry laboratory. It followed protest action over the academic exclusion of a student (Knowledge Mdlalose) in which a prominent student activist M had played a pivotal role (and also in other educational protest action).
Evidence links M, who was seen leaving the precincts when the grenade exploded as being the culprit. M had been a student at various tertiary institutions and, although he had never progressed beyond first year, exerted tremendous influence over young comrades by claiming to be a lawyer.
When the security police visited the scene of the explosion and were told M had been seen in the vicinity, one commented that he was “trained in the use of explosives”.
M was also seen near a burning motorcycle in central Durban during a march against the death of Chris Hani.
M reportedly worked for the military as well as the security police, and had been linked to incidents in which comrades had died after being handed primed grenades.
What evidence there is also suggests that the fires which gutted offices in the university’s Memorial Tower Building and Shepstone building in 1986 were orchestrated by the security police.
Apartheid era members remaining in the SAPS now serve the democratic government, but protesters, including idealistic youth, are unwittingly using the violent protest tactics perfected by the apartheid state.
Students have legitimate grievances over the lack of sufficient tertiary level funding, but there is no comparison between their struggles in a constitutional democracy – with other options available to them – and the completely powerless youth under apartheid who were left with no option but to resort to struggle tactics.
Tactics now open to students include the ballot box, peaceful lobbying and protest action, and an insistence on dialogue (they can also study part-time, like their forebears did, towards qualifications, including degrees).
The blame for the current funding crisis lies with the government, which fails to halt obscene corruption, billions in irregular expenditure, and the bailing out of badly run parastatals rather than investing in the country’s youth. Its bloated, overpaid and largely ineffectual cabinet is a national disgrace.
But it is essential that the university executive (and staff) find ways of engaging meaningfully with students, not only about the fees issue. They must investigate serious allegations about ill-treatment at the hands of badly trained police and private security. We all need to know why, despite the presence of the university and other security, campus, property has not been properly secured.
There are also allegations that instigators of some of the violence are not university of KwaZulu-Natal students, and may even be squatting in student residences (a practice rife during protests in the 1990s in which they featured prominently). Peaceful ways of resolving the present impasse must be found for violence begets further violence.
* Mary de Haas is a KZN violence monitor.
The article by Mbanjwa was published in The Witness on September 8.