Inside Government: Symbolism to Substance: Reflections on the Student Protests
Inside Government is a newsletter written by Premier Helen Zille.
Symbolism to Substance: Reflections on the Student Protests
Sometimes, in government, the decisions we take about symbolic issues, are as important as the substantive ones. The past week was full of such decisions, as the #FeesMustFall uprising moved from universities to Parliament, then to the ANC’s Johannesburg headquarters, culminating in the march to the Union Buildings on Friday.
Friday also happened to be the day the Western Cape Government was scheduled to hold its annual sports day, known as the “Better Together Games”.
When I first became Premier, I scrapped the event, because I thought it a “waste of time”. But I was persuaded to reinstate it because it does so much to build team spirit and competitive camaraderie between departments, who field teams in a range of sporting events. Preceding days are filled with tea time discussions about strategies to beat one’s rivals.
Participants and their supporters descend on Coetzenberg, outside Stellenbosch, in their various departmental colours, with all sorts of paraphernalia, from shakers to mascots, and join the parade before the contests begin.
But last week was unlike any other in the run-up to the Better Together Games. Apart from the campus crises, we were dealing with an uprising in Masiphumelele near Kommetjie after police arrested alleged vigilante killers. There were clearly not enough news reporters to get to all the hot spots, which is why Masiphumelele went largely unreported, although it exceeded the storming of Parliament in both ferocity and collateral damage.
When one is so involved in trying to keep track of rapidly changing events, tomorrow seems like another country.
So it was only late on Thursday night as I looked at Friday’s diary, that it hit me: How could we be holding a sports day on the Stellenbosch campus while students were calling for a #NationalShutDown and marching on the Union Buildings? Symbolism more callous and uncaring would be hard to conceive.
My instinct was to cancel the event, but how could I do so unilaterally, late on Thursday night, when it was impossible to convey the decision (or the reasons for it) to hundreds of participants? In the end, I decided that we would take the decision jointly, at the venue, after an open discussion of the events of the week, and their implications for the future of our country.
The combination of sports day participants descending on Stellenbosch, together with the student protest, resulted in a traffic jam so dense, that it took 30 minutes to negotiate the last 10 kms to the stadium. I arrived when the parade had already begun.
I was billed to give the opening speech. I used the opportunity to open the conversation about whether it was appropriate for us to continue with the games at all. I outlined the events of the week, and their significance for our country, and the seriousness of the funding crisis in higher education. I then called for participants to express their views.
The first participant had just finished speaking when my protectors grabbed my arms and pulled me backwards. I looked around and saw a group of people, dressed in black, approaching the stage. I assumed they were students. I could see they meant business and wanted to take over proceedings. My intention was to welcome them on stage, but my protectors had other ideas. At moments like this, their mandate is to get me out of the way of any potential danger, fast. I often want to respond differently. But it is impossible to have a discussion with protectors in a rapidly moving situation, which they believe to be risky. If I resist their instructions, they simply pick me up to get me out of the situation, and talk later.
With a vice-grip around my upper arms, they started frog-marching me across the field towards my car, pushing aside the growing melee of students. The symbolism of these actions was not lost on the students. Because my protectors wanted me to leave, the students demanded that I stay and engage them. (I have no doubt, however, that had I come there for the purpose of engaging with the students, they would have demanded that I leave.)
A few started accusing the protectors of implying, by their actions, that students were “dangerous animals” who were putting my safety at risk. Eventually someone demanded the loudspeaker and announced that we would sit on the ground and that I would answer the students’ questions. That seemed to be the most rational way to proceed, and by this time the crowd was so dense that the protectors were having difficulty moving me through it. So we all sat down on the grass for what purported to be a discussion. But the students’ purpose was not to elicit answers; it was to vent their rage and frustration. After a few futile attempts to respond, I concluded it was far better just to listen.
In a protesting crowd, symbolism always trumps substance; And in a leaderless crowd, decisions and commands change in split seconds. First they demanded that I remain in the stadium until university management arrived to address them.
Next someone demanded that I march with the students to the University Administration building. They wanted a response. I reflected on the request and agreed (because I believe university fees are unaffordable and place an excessive debt burden on students at the start of their careers; that government funding for universities is totally inadequate; and because peaceful protest is a right).
Then someone else proposed that we get out of the 32 degree heat and continue our discussion in a nearby hall. The protectors saw a potential hostage situation developing and were determined to use the moment, as we walked past my car, to bundle me in and get me away. But I explained, as best I could in the circumstances, how disastrous such a course of action would be, and that it was essential to follow through on my commitment to remain with the students.
In the hall, there was dancing and singing. There was an impromptu re-naming of the venue to the Albertina Luthuli (later corrected to Albertina Sisulu) Hall. Everyone cheered when someone announced that the hall would be occupied (and no-one would leave) until the university acceded to the students’ demands. By then I could also sense a potential hostage situation developing, as students sat closely around me, but the atmosphere was generally friendly and relaxed.
I cancelled a meeting back at the office with the Deputy Prime Minister of the German State of Lower Saxony. It was obviously not the time and place to use this as an excuse to leave!
Before too long someone announced that, if the Rector did not arrive at the Albertina Sisulu hall within ten minutes, there would be a march to the administration building, and that I would march with them. I am sure many of them were hoping I would refuse, so that they could “prove” I did not care about their plight. I agreed to walk with them, on condition that the march remained peaceful.
The symbolism of walking down the road with me was not lost on the students nearest to me, who wavered between wanting to engage me and shout at me. The difference between the two often depended on the proximity of a camera, which in such situations has the same effect as a burning match landing on dry grass. As one of them told me with disarming honesty: “we are going to look like sell-outs by walking with you”. Another one told me the protest was primarily about “decolonising education” but did not define what this meant. When I responded empathetically to another’s anger, I was told: “Don’t commoditise my pain”. My protectors were continually looking for exit points, and trying to persuade me to leave, while avoiding having to drag me away in front of the cameras.
As we approached the town square, the mood changed. The three SASCO students walking next to me, in ANC regalia, had up till that point been engaging me in animated conversation. They were oblivious to the irony of wearing ANC colours to a rally protesting their own party’s policies in government. But they were very aware of the symbolism of walking next to me into a mass gathering on the university’s main square. Within a split second the atmosphere changed. They rounded on me and told me to Voetsek (having previously demanded that I march with them). This is how crowds in fluid situations work. The situation changes as quickly as flicking a switch. Despite the volatility around me, the rest of the gathering calmly carried on walking.
I judged it the right moment to leave and turned and walked to my car, with the small group of students still telling me to Voetsek! Inevitably, despite the events of the preceding two hours, the media only reported that I had to be rapidly evacuated from Stellenbosch in “a police vehicle” after being chased out of Stellenbosch by protesting students. This did not reflect the nuanced reality of the situation.
Back at the office I watched events at the Union Buildings unfold on television, and discussed the significance of the week’s events with colleagues. In the moment, one has to deal with the symbolism. In the long term, the substance becomes more important. And there was much of substance to take from the events of the past week.
If they serve to give notice to government across the board, that people will no longer tolerate corruption, and demand a capable state that devotes sufficient resources to creating the necessary conditions for growth and jobs (such as higher education), then the events of the past week will indeed have been catalytic. Symbolically and substantively.