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Student power

16 October 2016

This week we heard that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and on university campuses throughout the country, and sometimes in the streets outside, his words were coming true:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

From The Times they are a-changin.

dylantimesWhat does a 50-year-old song have to say to us today? Many of the parents of today’s protesting students weren’t even born then. yet when I see the protesting students on TV news I think the times haven’t changed at all. As Bob Dylan said in another of his songs, Motopsycho Nightmare, “Oh no, no, I’ve been through this movie before”

I belong to the Student Power generation.

From about 1968 to 1976 there were student protests around the world. In many places students allied with the working class, and there were quite a few changes in the way that higher education was run. But there were also important changes that were not made, an this article describes one of them, which sparked off the current student protests
Under-funding, not protests, is driving South African universities down global rankings.

I witnessed the very beginning of the Paris Spring of 1968. I was in Paris in April 1968 for Holy Week and Easter at the Saint-Serge Institut de Theologie Orthodoxe, as part of a course in Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students. There were the beginnings of student demonstrations in the streets, and there was talk of student power in the air. My friend Hugh Pawsey and I, both from St Chad’s College, Durham, were broke. We had no food, no money and just tickets back to England on the ferry, so we returned to England.

When we got back to St Chad’s College, the staff had introduced a new repressive regime, and we staged a minor revolt over that, partly at the instigation of Dr Walter Hollenweger, whom we had visited in Geneva, and made several suggestions. In the wider University of Durham a group of Marxist students were holding a sit in in the university administration officers, and the police were taken by surprise. Durham, they said, was the last university where they expected trouble, since it was known to be the most middle-class university in Britain.

The Dean of the Theology Faculty, Prof H.E.W. Turner, called a meeting of the entire faculty, staff and students — an unprecedented step. By then the student protests in Paris were in full swing, and students were setting up barricades of burning vehicles and the like. Prof Turner thought we ought to discuss the way the faculty was run. He was being what administration fundis call “proactive” — much better for the Dean to call such a meeting ahead of a student demand for one. One of the students said so, “You’re just worried that we’re going to pick up paving stones from Saddler Street and toss them into your office window”. No, Prof Turner said, it wasn’t that at all, he just wanted to ensure better staff-student relations. Whatever the case may have been, I suspect that had there not been such student protests in Paris, the meeting would never have been called.

That was in May 1968, and I don’t know if anything ever came of it, because in July I returned to South Africa, and spent my last couple of months as a full-time student at St Paul’s College in Grahamstown. There were some student protests in South Africa over the next few years, and I knew some of the people involved, but was no longer a full-time student. On one occasion there was a police riot in St George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town, where police chased protesting students into the cathedral and beat them up there. It culminated in the 1976 protests, mainly of school children, where the police killed several.

But all this lies long in the past.

I am not now a student, nor even the parent of a student, so why am I writing about this?

It doesn’t directly affect me whether fees fall or not. It is not my studies or my children’s studies that will be affected if we can’t afford them. So perhaps it’s time to take Bob Dylan’s advice and just shut up and get out of the new road and don’t criticise what you can’t understand. Except that I have been through this movie before. What is different and what is the same? The paving stones in Saddler Street, Durham have become the concrete litter bins of Wits University campus that students break up for missiles, but what else has changed, and what is the same.

There have been calls for the decolonisation of education, and that was something that should have been done 20 years ago, but wasn’t. There was talk of the need for “transformation”, but plans for transformation, if they had ever been formulated, were soon shelved, perhaps because they proved too difficult to implement, and there turned out to be too many vested interests. A long time ago Zimbabwean education had been decolonised (before Mugabe’s time, and before Smith’s, even). Any attempt to make serious use of better trained Zimbabwean teachers in the South African system, to help transform it, tended to be stymied by South African teachers who had been poorly trained in the colonised Broederbond system, and they threatened to strike if Zimbabwean teachers were employed. Thus colonised education persisted far longer than it should have. Any suggestion that teachers who had been trained in the Broederbond system should be retrained was likewise met by threats to strike.

The purveyors of the Broederbond snake oil called Fundamental Pedagogics retained their places in the education faculties of universities, and went on wreaking their damage, Some of them tried, like the Vicar of Bray, to be politically correct in the new system. One Unisa lecturer, in his zeal for political correctness, revised his study guide by going through it using the search and replace function of a word processor to replace every instance of “fundamental pedagogics” with “philosophy of education”. If it was incomprehensible before, that turned it into word salad, but that didn’t matter, because, as one lecturer said, the students did not have to understand it, they just had to learn it.

So in many ways, looking back, The times that were a-changin’ 50 years ago don’t seem to have changed at all. The youth are saying to their elders, move aside, you don’t understand”. The barricades of burning tyres or burning vehicles and the rubble of broken liitter bins or paving stones seems much the same. Those whose grandparents said “don’t block up the hall are saying the same things themselves. Some of the student protesters compare themselves with the 1976 generation, and the implication is that the 1976 generation has failed them.

So what is different, if anything?

Police confront priest at entrance to church.

Police confront priest at entrance to church.

The image of a priest confronting an armoured police vehicle may look like a rerun of student protests of the 1970s, and the police who shot protesting miners at Marikana may look very little transformed from those who shot pass-law protesters at Sharpeville 50 years before, but there is an important difference.

The police who acted in those ways 50 years ago represented a burgeoning police state that was deliberately brought into being by Balthazar Johannes Vorster, then Minister of Justice. They could behave with impunity because he gave them impunity. But the laws that gave them impunity have been repealed. Something has changed since then.

And so I find myself in two minds about this. On the one hand, I remember the student protests of my youth, and what we were fighting for, and I think of the critics of student protest back then, and so many critics of student protesters now, who are well described here — Critiquing the critics of youth protest in post millennial South Africa:

The responses from many middle class observers to current student protests reveal a worrying but not unexpected trend symptomatic of contemporary political debate in South Africa. Young people, vocally objecting to the debt they must take on in order to get a tertiary education in post-apartheid South Africa with its high youth unemployment figure and less than inspiring economic growth prospects in the medium term, are subjected to ridicule and hectoring from people who mis-remember the privileges afforded them by the mediocracy which was tax-funded Christian Nationalist Education.

Derisive and sarcastic remarks about the cost of protestors’ clothing, ridiculing them for being involved in protests when they should be studying, and jeering at their supposed ingratitude for finding fault with systematised inequality and not appreciating opportunities given them, are only some of the responses from folks who believe themselves to be entirely reasonable in their criticisms. These responses echo those to the 1976 insurgency from conservative elements in black communities, as well as the dominant responses from apartheid apparatchiks and beneficiaries. With little irony, and seemingly less awareness of assuming the postures of the defenders of inequity and inequality in our recent history, they are quick to denounce contemporary youth political insurgency.

If I criticise student protesters now, will I not be becoming like “them”? Back then there was a slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” and on my 30th birthday I was very conscious of having reached to age of untrustworthiness, and now it has stretched out to even longer — more than 30 years have passed since I was 30.

And yet, and yet…. for all the corruption and cronyism, we do have a democratic society. It may work better in theory than in practice, but the theory is always there to be appealed to. Before 1994 there could be no such appeal to democracy. There was a small group of oligarchs who told us to stick to our “own affairs” and carried a big stick to make sure we knew what our own affairs were, which they told us. And in some ways the more extreme and violent of the student protesters seem to be reverting to that. They are the new oligarchy, demanding that everyone do what they say. The chickens of Christian National Education are coming home to roost.

The Brazilian educationist, Paolo Freire, said that the oppressed internalises the mind of the oppressor, and comes to believe that in order to be truly human one must become an oppressor. So the Afrikaner victims of British imperialism, who resented the Anglicisation policy of Alfred Lord Milner, stood up for the rights of people to speak and be taught in Afrikaans, but by 1976 their heirts Andries Treurnicht and Ferdi Hatzenberg were seeking to impose Afrikaans on others, just as Milner did to them. And so among the student protesters there seems to be a similar small group, seeking to go back behind our democracy, and resurrect the idea of a Broederbond-like oligarchy, whose will must be obeyed by all.

Part of our democracy is the idea that we can talk and listen to each other, than we can face problems and try to solve them. Part of the problem of pre-1994 South Africa was that that was impossible, because all discussion had to take place within the ideological framework of apartheid, which could not be questioned. Of course some would say that the idea of democracy is itself a bourgeois liberal ideological concept that needs to be overthrown by the will of a small group. But do we really want to go back there?

I think that most would agree that all education, and not just tertiary education, has been chronically under-funded and untransformed, and the #feesmustfall campaign has drawn attention to this, and it needs to be dealt with. But whether it can be dealt with only according to the dictates of a small group who seem bent on destroying educational resources and infrastructure, and do not appear to represent the majority of students, or even of those involved in the #feesmustfall movement is a different matter. It seems to be a regression to Broederbond-style oligarchy.

So I’m torn two ways about student protests. On the one hand, remembering student protests of my youth, I don’t want to move straight into old fart mode, and ignore Bob Dylan’s warning “don’t criticise that you can’t understand”. On the other hand, those student movements of the 1960s and 1970s were generally for greater freedom in education. But in the current protests there seems to be a vocal (and violent) minority who are calling for the Talibanisation of education, which would dump us right back in the Broederbond-style mess we’ve been trying to get away from. It is one thing to question the presuppositions of academic disciplines (if you search this blog for phrases like “Western modernity” you’ll see that I have often done that), it is quite another to try to turn questions into answers and seek to impose those answers an ideological form of political correctness, which is exactly what Christian National Education (and the Taliban) sought to do.

And then there is the question of transformation in the police. A couple of weeks ago this rather ominous article appeared — EWN – Eyewitness News — SA police need training to deal with protests – lawyer:

As police are accused of using a heavy hand during the #FeesMustFall protests, attorney Andries Nkome says the South Africa Police Services have not learnt anything from the Marikana massacre, adding that officers should be retrained to understand how to quell protests.

Let us be quite clear about this: the police do not need to be trained in how to “quell” protests. It is not the job of the police to quell protests. People have a constitutional right to protest, and it is not the business of the police to interfere with that right. Protesting is not breaking the law. If protesters (or anyone else) start damaging property and assaulting people, then they are breaking the law, and it is the job of the police to arrest and charge them (not to “disperse” them using stun grenades and rubber bullets). And yes, the police may need special training for that — not to “quell” protests, but to see that protests remain peaceful.

We have seen reports that some student protesters thew stones at private security guards, and the private security guards threw stones back. In either case it is assault and breaking the law, and the police should arrest and charge those who do such things, whether students, security guards, or anyone else.

There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about this. There are news reports of students being arrested at violent protests. There are reports of people being arrested for arson of schools in Limpopo province, but there are no reports of what happened when these people are brought to trial. The trials might reveal who they are and what their motives are, but no one seems to want to report on that.

But all in all, the times haven’t changed that much at all.

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