Four weeks ago, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the University of the Witwatersrand to participate in a panel discussion.
It was part of the Jozi Book Fair.
My heart broke. At almost 3pm, the science campus where the fair was held, was virtually empty. A few people hung around. Brilliant writer and veteran of many book fairs Zakes Mda went from one session to the other.
Schools had brought their pupils earlier in the day where he had read some of his children’s literature. Other than that, empty lecture halls and writers speaking to paltry audiences.
At the hall where my panel was to be held, a few people waited. One of the organisers told me we would be starting late. Why? I asked. Earlier on, Wits vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib was on a panel and students had disrupted it, proclaiming that he was not allowed to speak anywhere at Wits.
Think about that. The vice-chancellor of Wits is not allowed to speak at an academic institution where debate, contestation of ideas and openness are supposed to be paramount.
These days, Habib and many of his senior managers are not allowed to speak. Indeed, he won’t say it and Dr Max Price at University of Cape Town won’t say it, but if they find themselves among students they are likely to be kidnapped or, euphemistically, forced to “sit here until our demands are met”.
My panel discussion finally got under way.
Nine students, a few in Pan African Students’ Movement of Azania T-shirts, walked in 20 minutes into the debate. They walked in noisily, disrupting the speakers. They umm-ed and aah-ed as the discussion went on, then finally bullied the moderator into picking one of them to ask a question.
I made the mistake of mentioning to one of these angry young men that black people were proud and capable of full humanity and were not victims. I would have thought that proud black people such as those in the Pan-Africanist Movement would get this sort of thing. Instead, the room erupted into chants of: “Blacks are victims! Blacks are victims!”
They grabbed their bags and left, chanting their miserable slogan. The thought that they will spend the rest of their lives believing they are victims, acting like victims, being victims, depresses me. What would Steve Biko think?
This is what happens now at our institutions of higher learning. The truth is that a small, radical, violent elite is intimidating everyone else into silence. Legitimate student struggles – lack of access and funds – have been hijacked by this small minority to wreak havoc at University of KwaZulu-Natal, where a library was burnt down, and other places.
It started last year. The romanticism, and the truth, of the #FeesMustFall movement blinded us to much of the violent, sexist, incoherent parts of the movement.
This even as the University of the Western Cape and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology suffered massive damage by violent students. At the same time, other campuses were experiencing devastating low-intensity warfare from this small grouping of students.
Think here of the University of Johannesburg and the extraordinary measures it was forced to take to bring back a semblance of normality to that institution.
What is worse is that, as Habib and others have testified, some academic staffers at Wits and UCT have condoned and even encouraged this violence. There is now no institution which has not seen infrastructure burnt down, looting and harassment on a grand scale.
Those who hold a view contrary to that of this minority are intimidated into silence. In the case of lesbian activists and others of the LGBTI community, they get sjambokked by the sexist merry men of this movement.
We cannot be for the burning of university libraries and science laboratories while we claim to be for education. We cannot be for progress while we glorify violent, sexist, backward behaviour. We cannot be for our children and yet keep silent or applaud as their future goes up in flames.
It is time to stop this in its tracks. It is time for government to support the vice-chancellors. It is time for student activists to isolate these violent elements. It is time for the police to enforce the law – identify, arrest and prosecute those who break the law.
It is time to acknowledge that not all within this movement is right and upstanding, that it has a streak and factions that undermine everything that it stands for.
It may be fashionable to justify some of the things that are happening within the #FeesMustFall movement. The truth is that an unelected minority (these are people who are not in the Student Representative Councils, for example) is holding our children, our future, hostage.
The heroes are not those who shout loudest today and shut down those they disagree with.
Our heroes, when we look back at this period, must be those who stand up now and say in this democracy there are legitimate spaces for engagement and we must use them with responsibility and care.
We need to talk, not burn. We need to find solutions, not try to be rebels without a cause.