Buildings didn’t traumatise us, vicious police did

Their struggle is different, but surely there are things we learnt from which young people can also learn today, says Ryland Fisher.

Cape Town - Last year I attended an Africa Day celebration with the acclaimed Somalian author Nuruddin Farah at the Centre for the Book. In the audience was a group of student supporters of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, most of them in UWC law school T-shirts.

It was a government-sponsored event which, predictably, ran late because we could not begin before the relevant minister arrived. While we were waiting, the RMF supporters began singing a song about African unity which everyone appreciated. Some even sang along. The RMF supporters then sang a song about Umkhonto we Sizwe and most of the audience remained silent.

I thought how inappropriate a song about MK was where we no longer are engaged in a military struggle against the apartheid regime. It might have been appropriate in a different period. No wonder no one sang along and just kept quiet uncomfortably. Later, during question time, a RMF supporter spoke about how traumatised she was when she had to study in halls named after colonialists and walk past statues honouring colonialists on the UCT campus.

Everything is relative, I thought. When I was young, we were not traumatised by the names of lecture halls or colonial statues. Instead, we were traumatised by police who beat us up and threw us in jail. Some, like Ashley Kriel and Anton Fransch, even gave their lives in the fight for freedom.

I found myself thinking about the Africa Day incident over the past week or so, especially as I watched students at UCT burning paintings on campus, including one or two by the celebrated black artist Keresemose Richard Baholo, who, in the 1990s painted a series of pictures of protests at UCT featuring Jameson Hall in the background. Other paintings that were burnt included ones of anti-apartheid activist Molly Blackburn and other Black Sash members. The Black Sash played an important role in the struggle.

I support the #FeesMustFall protests, not only because, as a parent, I have paid many thousands of rands over many years to educate my children, but I can’t help wondering whether this is the correct way to go about protests.

When I think about what happened this week at other SA universities, particularly North West and the University of the Free State, where I serve on the council, we must be concerned, for different reasons.

The behaviour of white students towards black student protesters at UFS – white students beat up black protesters at a sports game this week – raises questions about the reconciliation project at the university, while the situation at NWU, where buildings were burnt down, should be condemned.

There is a strong school of thought that expired activists like myself must shut up and let the children run their own struggles. Their issues are different and their conditions of struggle are different, goes this school of thought, with which I agree mainly.

But surely there are things we learnt along the way from which young people can also learn today?

Two instances, from two different periods of my life, come to my mind.

The first was when we went on strike in 1980 at the first newspaper where I worked. It was the Cape Herald and it was aimed at the “coloured” community in the Western Cape.

We went on strike because black journalists like me were paid less than our white counterparts with the same levels of experience.

The strike began at the Herald and soon spread through the country. After a month, management agreed to salary parity and we agreed to go back to work. Our colleagues in the then-Transvaal, however, decided not to return to work as they had a few other issues they wanted resolved.

Eventually they returned to work, but the union was much weaker because of divisions over whether they should return, which was exploited by management.

The lesson I learnt then was that one should know when to attack and when to withdraw.

I still think our decision to return to work when we did was correct and our colleagues up north should have joined us.

We could have built the union together and regrouped to fight for our other demands in another way. Instead, the union suffered irreparable damage because some strikers tried to hold out for too long.

The second thing I have been thinking about was the period in the 1980s when, as activists, we tried to make our country ungovernable as a way to bring down the apartheid regime.

Part of making the country ungovernable involved convincing residents not to pay for services and to disobey the laws of the land whenever they could.

Of course, when our country became a democracy, it was difficult to convince the same residents that they now had to pay for services and obey the law. In parts of our country, there are still people who think they should not pay for services.

I thought about how the culture one creates during periods of intense struggle can impact on how one conducts oneself later. It is possible that, if you feed students a diet of intolerance, they will conduct themselves in an intolerant manner later in their lives.

If you teach students to conduct themselves violently to achieve their aims, there is a likelihood they might resort to violent conduct later in their lives.

The South Africa we live in today is significantly different from that one in which we grew up under apartheid. We have a democratic government with a multitude of channels that can be explored if one is unhappy about just about any issue.

Just look at some of the reports of the public protector and some of the judgments of the Constitutional Court.

I am not denying students their right to protest. It is a right that I will protect with all my might. My issue is with the nature of the protests and the potential long-term effects of their methods

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 27 February 2016).