Rascals. Work-nots avoiding exams. Malicious vigilantes. Insurgents. Counter-insurgents. Revolutionary. But a few of the labels attached to the #FeesMustFall protesters. So, which one is it – innocent students with legitimate claims or insurgents attempting to take down a country by ‘undemocratic means,’ as suggested in the article below. The fact is we don’t know yet which one it is or whether it’s some mix of all. And that is the important thing. The ball is still in play. And which part of that mix wins the day is up to us – yes, us. Both as ordinary citizens and more so, for those influences within civil society. This could be one of the most important occurrences in the history of our young, restless democracy since 1994.
And not only do we underestimate the enormity of the event but the seeds of opportunity that it presents. Whether this period in our history emerges as victory or tragedy turns on the wisdom with which we engage with it. The State is indeed rudderless. This is dangerous and yes, we could well find ourselves with a revolution sneaking up on us – and we will look back at newsreels and say the Fees Must Fall protests sparked it. Yet, if the surface of our society had remained smooth and unruffled, smeared with a veener of platitudes for much longer, this would have been an inevitable outcome anyway. And there lies the opportunity.
In the cauldron of these protests, in the murky messiness of burnt books, death and near-death; in the testing of our civil rights in direct confrontation with police and authority; in the confrontation of the validity of our social structures, lies the possible re-birth of our democracy. In our anger at the actions of protests, we fail to even consider the notion that the protests may bear potent fruits that deepen and widen the breadth of our democracy – if we so choose.
This could well be the rebirth of a vital, new generation of civil rights activists– an important part of a democratic society that has largely died out. Post the anti-retroviral fight, the civil rights movements in the country has lost its punch, despite the rampant social injustice left to fester around us. The grievances of, particularly the working class has become malignant, flowing as a constant undercurrent in the townships and squatter camps. A powerful civil rights movement is essential to keeping democracy afloat – a more effective version of the far less-controlled, if more contained service delivery protests, which conveniently did not affect mainstream South Africa.
#FeesMustFall has also done something else – its given new momentum to the grassroots journalism that is now once again budding in the country. Voices that we have bemoaned as dead with apartheid – replaced by a host of media complicit or explicit in ‘towing the line.’ So before we rush for the bunkers – leaving the game to the kingmakers to fight for the spoils; let’s understand that in the murky re-birthing of any entity – never mind a country – we should expect the cauldron to smoke . We should expect that this new brew will not be easily seen through – it will throw up postulation and players – pacifists and activists; those for violent insurgency and those for negotiation, shifting goal-posts and very well-hidden agendas mixed in with highly legitimate need. This is natural and none of this derails the bigger process. If there are those, who can rise to their inner wisdom, who are willing to seek deep insight – they will quickly understand that herein lies an opportunity to shape the next iteration of our country.
There are many who’ve lived through the struggle years in South Africa, yet continue to express exasperation at the ‘shifting goalposts’ or even, tactics of protest including violence. This is simply naïve – however personally unacceptable we may find it. Civil disobedience has no prescribed established range. It responds to the catalysts presented, to the influences exerting pressure from inside and out and has a shape and momentum of its own. It does not follow the established rules and yes, it is unsettling, confrontational, intimidating, scary and … breaks the law. Hence the term. However, that it does not escalate is entirely up to whether those in civil society, who can ‘move the needle’ are able to apply the well-learned lessons of the past and provide the space, opportunity and servant leadership to sieve the chaff from the corn, to allow for the inevitable coalescing and fragmentation into militants and moderates of the new civil movement and, if they find the courage and do it well enough, midwife the birthing of a new, powerful generation of civil rights leaders, born of a struggle relevant to this generation of South Africans.
If as civil leaders, you succeed, we will find ourselves in a more robust, more powerful, more resilient democracy. It is about time civil society re-thought its role to itself, to the State and to the people it serves. It’s about time that we step outside of our own myopic viewpoints, outside of our prejudice and understand the powerful rite of passage through which we now walk. If we have the courage to peer into the smoke…
Above article refers: