Thursday 12 November 2015
Andries du Toit
Again I share these reflections on recent events at UWC with real awareness of their limitations.
For one thing, events on campus have taken a turn for the worse since the Chair of Council’s illadvised
public email of 10 November wrecked the fragile peace established by the agreement
between the Rector and the FMF students. For many, the violent events that followed serves as
final ‘proof’ that rational discourse with the striking students is impossible and that a forceful
crackdown is the only option. For students, on the other hand, the experience of yesterday’s
confrontations and arrests may well have deepened grievances and hardened resolve. As
before, the situation is fluid and rapidly moving, and trying to stand back and make some sort of
coherent sense of it seems almost impossible.
For another, there is the politics of voice and intervention. Very few people so far have publicly
intervened in the ‘sense making process’ at UWC and these have hardly been representative of
our campus community. I am aware that my ‘reflections’ of 1 November have provoked one
public response, a detailed rebuttal by my friend and colleague Ben Cousins. Much as I am
tempted to respond in detail, I don’t think it would be useful. I don’t think there is much profit
in a game of what-the-Rector-should-have-done. More to the point, I don’t believe this is an
appropriate moment for an epistolatory exchange between two middle-aged white male
academics in a historically black University!
At the same time, I am also aware of many pressing questions. The last few days have raised
with painful urgency the question of how members of staff should respond to the rapid
polarisation of groupings on campus, how we can support the eventual aims of the FMF
movement, and how to accommodate the legitimate and pressing bread-and-butter issues put
on the table by our students. For my part I have been time and again struck by the intense
ambivalence I have experienced as someone who is predisposed to ally myself with the aims of
the mobilising students – but finding myself repeatedly unable to agree with their actions.
One issue has been that while Fees Must Fall is indeed a broad national movement, we
encounter its actions as they play out on this particular campus. And from early on, the issues
in contention at UWC have not been primarily the demands of the students (with some of which
we might agree, and others not); rather, what has in contention is the form of these politics -
their political strategies, tactics, and (crucially) ethics.
The issues raised here have been deeply troubling, and make it much harder for me to adopt the
rather idealising stance many of my colleagues have seemed to be advocating towards our
The most obvious of these has related to the allegations and evidence of violent, destructive and
intimidating behaviour. Now selective or essentialist readings won’t be much good here.
Interpretations that dismiss violence as a distracting and irrelevant side issue in an essentially
peaceful movement are as unhelpful as those that see the student as ‘a bunch of hooligans’ and
seize on violence as the ‘real’ meaning of the movement. Rather, it seems to me that we are
seeing a complex political practice with a wide and varied repertoire in which both violent and
non-violent elements are salient. In the last few weeks we have seen central figures in the FMF
movement display both great idealism and alarming immaturity, using the language both of
peaceful protest and of explicit threats. I should point out that far from being confined to the
words and actions of a fringe minority, the language of violence (e.g. ‘we will destroy this
campus’ / ‘this campus will burn’) has also been part of the lexicon of prominent leaders and
spokespeople in the movement.
Now I agree that the spectre of violence should not be used as an excuse to refuse negotiations
or to discount the importance of the issues FMF has put on the table. But at the same time we
can’t simply dismiss it. Simply saying in passing that of course violence ‘must be condemned’
without engaging explicitly and honestly with its implications both for the ‘movement’ and for
‘our’ support of it is pretty much to condone it. So is belittling or dismissing the very real
experiences of humiliation, intimidation, and threats that have been experienced by our
colleagues and by students.
Furthermore, the matter of violence and vandalism is only the 'hottest' and most easily-taken-out-of-context
aspect of the broader problem raised by the often coercive and confrontational
tenor of much of the politics that we have seen.
Doubtless many will disagree with me here. But I think that vital and valid as the issues the
students have raised are, it cannot be denied that their central methods and tactics (disrupting
classes, seeking to shut down the University, forcing fellow students to be removed from the
University library, threatening to stop exams) are coercive in themselves. These tactics have
involved impinging on the rights of other students and members of our campus, and have
threatened to cause real harm to their futures. They have pitted students against students and
have put the UWC FMF movement, at least since 26 October, on a collision course with the
authorities. In my mind this is deeply problematic, and it is not something we should ignore or
fail to question.
Three points may be helpful here.
(1) Firstly, I think we need to move beyond a politics of alignment – beyond symbolic ‘support’
and ‘condemnation’ – to a process of trying to understand. Why is it that so many students seem
to need a language of coercion, of dominance and command, of ritual humiliation of authority
figures, and of the public performance of violent acts to experience any sense of social agency
on campus and in our society? Are these inclinations rooted in their everyday experience of the
‘slow violence’ of inequality and marginalization in present-day South Africa? Or in the ‘ordinary
violences’ of crime and patriarchy? What are the responses that can contain, ameliorate and
engage with these demands? What can be done to give our students a sense of agency and
recognition, and can they find ways of claiming these in less extreme, less confrontational forms
(2) Secondly, I think we need to come to a critical and constructive strategic evaluation of the
tactics of the movement. What are the strengths and weaknesses of forms of mobilisation in
which everyone (and therefore no-one) is a leader, in which mandates can be unilaterally
revoked, in which there is deep distrust of formal political process and negotiation? How do we
deal with a political practice in which the performance and invocation of the status of ‘outsider’
is such a powerful legitimising strategy, and in which the dance of ‘public’ and ‘hidden’
transcripts familiar to us old-timers is supplemented by the often incendiary and invisible
realtime Greek chorus of internet commentary? And more to the point: how can the theatre of
protest be turned into a genuine and concrete politics of change?
(3) Thirdly, as Ben Cousins’s final paragraphs remind us, what of the future? What, for example,
of the need to think through the meaning of the idea of the University at UWC?
My take: Our University is a complex assemblage of communities. Even the big, ready-made
categories ("students", "academics" "staff") are not homogenous entities. Rather, they are each a
congeries of complex, internally disunited, diverse, dissimilar and fissive groupings each of
which is entitled to respect. This goes even for those whom ‘we progressives’ (ah, the arrogance
of that term!) might want to dismiss as 'conservative' or 'middle class' or what have you.
This is a crucial point to be borne in mind as we enter the process of debating transformation at
our University. Such a process of transformation is likely to be complex, slow, difficult, and
argumentative; if it is to be worth anything at all, it will be a process of changing minds (in my
experience never easy, especially when the mind in need of changing belongs to onself!) Any
such process can only happen if these disparate groupings are held in some kind of container of
mutual respect (of each other and of process), and a commitment to tolerance. This puts the
ethics of political process and difference right at the heart of transformation.
So I am deeply worried. I am worried about the ease with which we can slide into a politics of
'alignment' in which questions of ethics, respect, democracy and the rights of other members of
this campus community are trivialised or ignored. I am also worried about the aftermath of such
politics , their implications for the quality of our social relations on campus, and what they bode
for critical and thoughtful debates on the future of our University. Rather than celebrating the
current moment as the opportunity for ‘real change’ I fear that it is moving us over a threshold
beyond which trust is plummeting, coherence is fragmenting, and unilateral acts of power are
the order of the day.
Rather than turn a blind eye towards or refusing to engage with aspects of political practice
which are unacceptable, I think we have moral duty to consider how we, as members of the
UWC community and as educators can encourage students to broaden the political vocabulary of
protest beyond the lexicons of confrontation, domination, coercion and political command that
have so often surfaced on our campus in recent times.
At the very least urgent thought is needed by all who have a stake in the future of our institution
as to what (if anything!)can be done in the next few days to try to bridge the widening gaps that
are threatening to engulf our University.