Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

The way the government has nakedly displayed its thuggish power during student protests is telling, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

We should all be deeply disturbed that the security cluster has been unleashed on student protesters. The media briefing that starred the minister of security in a lead role the other day marks yet another low point in the ruinous leadership narrative of the Jacob Zuma-led government.

First, the student protests are not, fundamentally, a security matter. It is a series of protests, yes, that requires security to be kept. But for the security cluster to feature centrally in how the state sees, and responds to the protests, is telling.

There is a gigantic difference between maintaining law and order, which is a legitimate duty that falls on the state, and an inter-ministerial cluster urgently assembling its top civil servants, intelligence experts and political principals to quash protests.

For one thing, it is a naked display of thuggish state power. It is an unsubtle way of sending the message to students and civil society more generally that, instead of the government being willing to role model how to continue engaging in dialogue in pursuit of solutions to deep societal problems in which we are all implicated, the government is instead willing to close down the space for dialogue by using force and manipulating intelligence in order to neutralise and subvert voices deemed too much of a nuisance for a state that has run out of ideas.

For another, this naked display of thuggish state power is an admission that the government has given up on dialogue. Whether we are talking about the heart-wrenching footage of ordinary policemen and women being violent pawns of an ineffective state cracking down on Rhodes University students last week, or the minister of security comfortably sharing pet conspiracies (without a shred of evidence) about mysterious forces hell-bent on bringing down the government. None of these moves are conducive to building the necessary trust and goodwill that can enable stakeholders to try to find each other in dialogue.

Those of us who disagree with some or all of the demands, strategies and tactics of the students would do well to think carefully about how much we enjoy imagery of private security and state security cracking down on students. Think about what it is that we are rehearsing as a society.

We have an unflattering history going back centuries, of violence being an inherent feature of democratic, apartheid and colonial-era government and governance structures. When the government succeeds in getting some segments of society to support its hasty resort to force and intimidation as substitutes for responsive government then the state becomes emboldened by its use of raw power.

Today it is the students being hunted by policemen and women. Yesterday, it was the miners of Marikana. Tomorrow it might be teachers, nurses, or other sectors of society whose resort to protesting gets dealt with through the use of blunt state force.

Does this mean that one cannot critique protests? Of course one can. We can and should question the substantive arguments and demands student protesters make in order to test their desirability and feasibility. We can debate the details of the so-called decolonisation movement. Many of us have been doing so. Some critics have been too lazy to get stuck into the details.

We can and should debate the use of particular strategies and tactics employed by students. Nothing is off limits for critical discussion. There are no axiomatic truths here. And just because older folks handed down an imperfect nascent democratic society to young people doesn’t mean that young people have a monopoly on truth.

Ageism is fallacious and misplaced whether the perpetrators of such ageism are young or old. We need not regard any position of any student as a priori true.

Here is the nexus point: No one is trying to bring down the Zuma-led government, and so the use of state security resources to respond to a student movement demanding free education and a more inclusive, decolonised tertiary education sector is deeply disturbing.

The government should be winning arguments with evidence, persuasive rhetoric, rhetorical finesse and building alliances across society to isolate anyone who is in fact being opportunistic and preying on bona fide student movements for nefarious ends.

But what the government is doing, effectively, is to treat the entire student movement as wholly illegitimate, suspicious and a threat to the very existence of a democratically elected government. That is dishonest and dangerous.

Dishonest, because it is untrue that most student protesters aren’t interested in living in a country that is peaceful, democratic, just and inclusive. Dangerous, because it is a rehearsal of state propaganda aimed at dividing civil society, students and the perpetually anxious middle class, intelligentsia and even academics.

The real enemy to a sustainable democracy is an ineffective and unethical state, not overzealous student protesters.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.