(Column first published on the Daily Dispatch 27 October 2015)
We are living in the most energising and hopeful times of our history. Justice and hope for the poor has never felt more at hand than now, at least in my life time.
If we were to compare the past week with 1976, history records no white students who used their privilege to stand with poor black students. In 1976 they did not form a white human shield around black students in order to protect them from police brutality as the heartbreaking and powerful images on social networks displayed this past week during the #FeesMustFall student protest. There is of course nothing positive about how easy it is for police to mistreat black people. Police brutality or violent protests are inexcusable, but there is a strange and powerful kind of unity that is emerging out of, and dare I say, aided by our divisive past.
The white students who are part of this #FeesMustFall movement have not joined the movement because they are poor. UCT vice-chancellor Max Price’s son for example was also among those taken to the police station by the police during protests. These white students are protesting because their parents did nothing or too little to prevent the devastating effects of racist systems that continue to impoverish the black majority. One of the white students who was arrested during the protests is called Markus Trengove, he wrote: “I benefited from the injustice of apartheid…the right reaction is to admit that there is enormous injustice, but my privilege has put me in a good position to remedy it. This is my privilege. This is my duty.” Another white student writes: “I think my mother is a racist.”
Can you not see a new brand of heroism emerging in our nation?
Last month South Africans from all walks of life united against corruption and marched on the 30 September. Numsa marched two weeks ago on the day that the Johannesburg M1 Grayston temporary pedestrian bridge collapsed. The following morning on SABC Morning Live, one of the workers reported that had they not joined the march, they would have been working on the bridge at the precise point where it collapsed. Their last minute decision to attend the march resulted in what made the difference between living or dying.
If the bridge were a parable about the state of our nation today, I would say that the Mandela and Tutu era of reconciliation was like a temporary bridge. Reconciliation without justice is unsustainable. We must act before it collapses. South Africans must come to the party as we have seen advantaged students and disadvantaged students zealously fighting for the same cause that will eradicate racism and inequality. Wearing a Springbok jersey is no longer enough to unite South Africans; to the contrary, #SpringboksMustFall was one of the popular twitter hashtags before the match against the All Blacks. The old methods of national unity are superficial and are failing to move us forward.
We are also living in dangerous times; among other issues, Eastern Cape and Western Cape student protests were often alarming because of reported violent elements. It is for this reason that we must disrupt our business as usual and act together with wisdom and urgency. The poor are no longer patient, the young are even less patient, after all, this so called freedom is as old as they are. Outside Luthuli House, former Wits SRC president Mcebo Dlamini addressed the students questioning the label they carry as Born-frees: “Comrades, if you are free, you are free from what? Are you free from poverty?” The students shouted back in unison: “No!”
If you cannot feel hope and courage rising, you cannot be living in this country, not after #FeesMustFall which has enjoyed global support and attention. It continues.