On 16 June 1976, 40 years ago youth mobilized and demonstrated, initially in Soweto but it spread through out the country. Youth boycotted apartheid education and marched against tyranny in education. Afrikaans was being forced into schools not just as a subject but also as a medium of education. The quality of education was poor. The desire for liberation from all the oppressive legislation and the various discriminations had reached an unbearable proportion. The youth with the support of parents and educators started the demonstrations.
39 years later, last year we saw youth on campuses marching against increases in fees. #Fees must fall became a popular movement, gaining widespread support. But then the protests began to be marred by violent acts of aggression against lecturers, destruction of property new calls such as #Rhodes Must Fall leading to distortions in the purpose and aims of the campaign. A result was general chaos leading to disruptions of education. Burning of libraries and schools followed. Were we meeting the needs of the youth? Was there a destructive hand disrupting the youth demonstrations for legitimate demands?
Clearly there was a move to capture the momentum for political gain. The leaders of the campaign realized this and took steps to halt the campaign. However the disruptive forces have continued to erode the campaign as a result many issues are raised about higher education, ranging from those who called for free higher education, transformation of the curriculum, replacement of white and other racial groups in the Higher education by African lecturers and demands for better facilities in terms of accommodation food etc. and the list can go on as one speaks to individual students.
One therefore asks are all these demands really transformative demands? This question leads to the important issue of what does transformation mean? Gandhiji alluded to his idea of transformation in Hind Swaraj or Indian self rule in respect of India. He talked about the need to think differently from the colonial perspective.
The colonial perspective is dominated by self preservation and aggrandizement- The in group and the out group. The opposite of this is communal thinking and inclusivity looking at what is beneficial for the community. Some of these ideas were introduced when the compulsive community service was introduced into the training of professionals, some were against this. However in looking into what is the content of education and who imparts education, these ideas are not taken into account and instead value is placed on degrees obtained, staff change. No change in the colonial institutions and the general trend of education. The purpose and goal of education has become more materialistic and elitist with sharp differences in the quality of education at the different Universities.
A large portion of University grant is spent on remuneration at the top level. Clearly the demand for academic freedom is not at all linked to addressing the issues of inequality or building a new ideology. The Universities research the state of inequality in our country and criticize the government. Yet the need is for every sector of society to set an example of how we can create equality in our work places be it in educational institutions, businesses, factory floors or NGOs. We cannot seek equity when we are guilty of perpetuating inequality.
When organizing protests perhaps a lesson from the past could help. One of the key features of the past protests was the broad unity that was forged. Activists approached every religious institution , parents, workers, women’s and youth organizations, sports structures and other community organisations for support. Most actions taken in the past were thus inclusive, participatory, transparent, controlled and well motivated.