Protesters are fast alienating their support base

In the Twitter generation where #EverythingMustFall, it is probably appropriate to describe our current situation as “It’s complicated” which is one of the options one has when describing one’s relationship status on Facebook.

The education crisis which is currently engulfing our tertiary institutions can be resolved, even though it appears that everyone is shouting past each other and no one is really listening to what everyone else has to say.

It does not help when poorly-trained police and security get involved in trying to defuse what has become an increasingly volatile situation at universities throughout the country, but especially in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

It also does not help when race gets dragged into what is essentially an economic issue and when students appear to be shifting their goalposts and appear to be determined to only go back to classes once their demand for “free, decolonised education” has been met.

The scenes that we saw playing out on campuses the past few weeks has been disconcerting to anyone who wants to see our democracy succeed and lives improve for the majority of South Africans.

As a parent who comes from a working class family and who put three daughters through university, I support the call for free education, even though it is based on my personal situation more than what can realistically be afforded by government.

My daughters did not qualify for student aid or bursaries so we had to do it the hard way, paying tens of thousands of rands every couple of months in order to make sure that they could remain at their chosen educational institution.

There are a couple of things that bother me about the FeesMustFall protests, but I have been struggling to verbalise these for fear of being seen to be reactionary. This is probably the same dilemma faced by students (black and white) who support the call for free education but do not want to lose an academic year.

The main thing that concerns me about FeesMustFall is not where the money is going to come from to pay for free education. Where there is a will there is a way, and government will probably just reprioritise their spending to make it happen, if this is what they decide.

And this is precisely what worries me. South Africa is a complicated country at the best of times and providing free education to university students is but one of our concerns.

While we have (had) some world-class universities in South Africa, our primary and secondary school system leaves much to be desired. I have not seen much of a link between the university students’ demands and education in general.

I also worry about things such as housing and job-creation which, many would argue, should probably be more of a priority than education.

But more than that, when I was introduced to activism as a youngster more than a lifetime ago, I was trained that all our struggles are interlinked and that was why we had to occupy activist positions in student, youth, community, worker, women, sport and religious organisations, among others.

When students protested, their hand was strengthened by the fact that they had the support of workers and community organisations.

I don’t see this happening now and it appears almost as if the students are fighting a battle on their own. Even the support that was generated last year when parents stood up in support of the students’ demands seem to have faded.

There are probably some of the more militant students who would want to hold out for as long as they possibly can in the mistaken belief that all their demands will be met if they protest long enough.

But part of engaging in militant activity is knowing when to strike and when to withdraw. If you continue too long, you run the risk of alienating part of your support base.

A few months after I became a journalist at a small paper in Cape Town called the Cape Herald, we went on strike for better pay. We discovered that our white colleagues, with the same experience as us, were earning more than double in most cases.

The strike, which started in our newsroom, quickly spread throughout the country. Management finally gave in and agreed to increase our salaries significantly. We decided to go back to work because our primary demand had been met. However, some colleagues in Johannesburg and Durban decided to remain on strike because management had not met some of the other demands that we had added to our list.

The result of all of this was that our union became divided and much weaker, thereby strengthening management’s hand. The union took years to recover after this.

My feeling is that, despite the heightened emotions and the passion that the students feel for their cause, they cannot afford to fight blindly and run the risk of alienating people who might have been sympathetic to their cause.

There needs to be some pragmatism in order to save the academic year and allow students the space to regroup and continue their fight.

You cannot run roughshod over people and force them to support you. When we were engaged in the Struggle against apartheid, we did not force the world to support us, but we engaged people to win their loyalties, even though it sometimes took long to do so.

The students need to understand that you cannot have free education at all costs, and in the process destroy universities.

Like I said, I was nervous about thinking aloud on this topic, because now I am probably going to be branded as a sell-out. But insults and names have never stopped me from expressing how I feel, especially about issues that affect this country that all of us love so much.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 October 2016)