Leaders need to listen, and act decisively

The #FeesMustFall movement is a manifestation of a broader unhappiness about the direction our country has been taking, writes Ryland Fisher.

When members of Parliament left the Medium Term Budget speech of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Wednesday afternoon, they might have seen the debris in Plein Street, which was the aftermath of clashes between police and students demanding “free, quality, decolonised and Afrocentric education”.

The MPs might also have seen the bricks strewn in the road and they might have noticed a smashed window at a Roeland Street furniture store, the unfortunate victim of an angry crowd. They might have encountered some students who stayed behind after the protests, having managed to avoid the police and blend in with the public.

And surely, they would have noticed the huge police presence outside Parliament - including several armoured vehicles and all manner of firearms - all meant to protect the people inside Parliament from those trying to be heard.

They might also have seen near the entrance to Tuynhuis the rolled up barbed wire, which had earlier been used to block off Parliament from protesters.

As I was walking up Plein Street on Wednesday afternoon, when the action had shifted towards the railway station, I could not help thinking about what happened in the past few months to get us to this point and whether all this could have been prevented by more decisive leadership.

I also thought about what our politicians, the leaders we elected to represent us in Parliament, think about all of this.

Would they be prepared to accept that something has gone wrong in our society? Would they be prepared to admit what has gone wrong? Would they be prepared to accept they might have played a role in fomenting what is happening, if only because they have become completely out of touch with our society and do not have a clue how to address the real (and literally burning issues) in our society? Or would they blame everyone else, a stance which appears to be the norm for South African politicians?

While the politicians and invited guests were sitting inside Parliament, listening to the minister of finance desperately trying to stave off a credit downgrade, and giving him a standing ovation, the students outside were determined to make sure that their issue, free education, remains a serious priority for the government.

It is highly unlikely that those inside Parliament would have heard the commotion outside as students engaged in running battles with the police.

But it is really about whether they are able to listen beyond the noise generated during protests.

What is happening in education is a manifestation of a broader unhappiness about the direction our country has been taking, especially over the past few years.

There is a perception that the political elite are more concerned about lining their own pockets and sorting out their friends and families, at the expense of the majority. This has resulted in disdain for the law and constitution, unless it helps to further the agenda of this political elite, and what has been seen as abuse of compliant state resources while trying to undermine those state institutions where the incumbents are trying to fulfil their constitutional obligations.

I do not support violence, especially not in a constitutional democracy. But what if important voices are not being heard in a democracy? What methods should be used to force those with power to listen?

Our political leaders can no longer pretend it is business as usual in South Africa. We can also not pretend what we are seeing is a sign of a maturing democracy. A maturing democracy is one in which we are able to argue and disagree and then move forward, based on consensus or a majority decision. What we have seen in the past few months, related to the student demands, has been indecision, which has the potential to set back our hard-won democratic gains.

I am glad the students took their protests to Parliament, because that is where the power lies to change their situation, positively or negatively. Vice-chancellors of universities work within budgets and other constraints and cannot reasonably be expected to deliver on free education without serious input from the government and, possibly, the private sector.

Protests need to move off campus, but at the same time the students need to find ways of convincing sceptical members of the public that they remain committed not only to their cause but also to the cause of turning South Africa into the great country we all know it can become.

We need to be able to see their protests within the context of improving our country and not just as another demand for something free, without anyone taking any responsibility to deliver something in return, an approach we are good at in South Africa.

It was interesting that the finance minister, who was excluded by the president from the committee meant to find solutions to the education crisis, was the one who accepted the students’ memorandum. However, we will need more than symbolism to avoid the shutting down of universities, a move which could have devastating effects on the country and the economy.

Let’s see what our leadership can deliver, otherwise I’m afraid what happened outside Parliament on Wednesday will become the norm and our “mature democracy” will descend into chaos from which we might not be able to recover.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 29 October 2016)