Let’s talk about violence in the decolonisation struggle

STUDENT (S): Amandla, Professor!

PROFESSOR (P): No, I’m sorry, my name is not Amandla, but how are you?

S: No fine. Just got back from a protest and we burnt a building on campus and torched a police van.

P: And you’re proud of yourself?

S: You see that’s the problem with your generation, Prof. We are talking past each other. Why are you suddenly against violence? Remember the ANC made the decision to take up arms against injustice? When the state would not listen to the masses of our people, the liberation movements decided there was a need for a militant response.

P: True, but this is not apartheid, this is a constitutional democracy. You express yourself through the ballot box, not through violence.

S: Well, you know what they say, Prof, “voting helps but violence works”. Here we are, and my family still lives in a shack and I still can’t afford to study at university. So what must I do? Give up on my dreams? The only message the university management understands is violence.

P: Wait a minute! You know the management does not have money. They get the money from government. So you chose the wrong address. You should be taking your case to parliament, to the Union Buildings and not destroy the universities.

S: Eish, Professor. Where did you get your degrees? This is how it works. We know government has the money but, you see, if we pressurise the universities, the government then comes to their rescue. When we pressed for 0% fee increase in 2016, guess what? The president gave us 0% fee increase. So you see? It works. Violence delivers results.

P: I have to agree with you that sometimes, not all the time, government tends to respond to violent protests more readily than to talks or even to peaceful demonstrations. In fact, I believe the president made a huge mistake by giving 0% because now violent people like you think it will happen again.

S: Ha ha. No, Prof. You need to do some reading. Fanon said that violence is a purifying force necessary for decolonisation. I read in social psychology some people say violence is a form of revenge, that it can restore your dignity in the face of oppression, that it gives you power in your powerlessness.

P: I know that literature and I think you misread Fanon. There is a much more powerful literature that says violence degrades us all, it diminishes our humanity and that when we begin to see violence as a cause-and-effect solution to our problems, then violence becomes institutionalised in society, and that is very bad.

S: There’s too much Mandela in your head, Prof. Why have you never spoken out against symbolic violence. Every day when I see white statues on campus and white authority in the classroom and white knowledge in the curriculum, I feel violated. That is the daily violence I suffer. Suddenly when I burn a building, everyone shouts “violence!” But nobody talks about the violence visited daily on the black body. Here, too, black lives matter.

P: You should stop playing victim and pretend that universities have not transformed at all. I can keep you busy with a long list of things that have changed on campuses since 1994. And what is this nonsense of using American language about black victimhood when we as blacks are the majority in the country? Black Consciousness was never about being a victim. It was about being proud of your own identity and not being dependent on white people for your sense of dignity and self-worth.

S: No, no, no, Prof. It’s because I am not a victim that I am standing up to white supremacy. We must decolonise this space, as black people. The settlers have ruled us for too long.

P: Wait a minute. Are you calling whites who have lived here for generations “settlers”? The constitution makes black and white people citizens with the same rights under the rule of law. Is this not your real agenda? An anti-white racism that masquerades as a democratic struggle? Should we not work together to find solutions to social problems such as financial inclusion?

S: We tried that for 20 years, Prof, and we are still in the same situation. Enough of all this reconciliation talk. We must take back our country. Sorry, I have to rush, there’s a march on campus. Amandla, Prof!

P: Ngawethu. As in all our people, black and white.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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