Different protest, different reasons, same state violence

“Put down your guns and start listening”

Grahamstown, usually a quiet and peaceful town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, is burning. Not with fire, or with tear gas, although we’ve seen enough of that in the last week too, but with years of pent up frustration. The students of Rhodes University joined the national shut down of tertiary institutions #FeesMustFall on 21 October. On the same day, just one-kilometre away at the town’s police station protestors were demanding the release of looters arrested in violence against foreign nationals the previous evening. Chelsea Haith reports. Images courtesy of GroundUp and Mia van der Merwe.

At face value the reasons for the protests are starkly different: students are standing side by side with their foreign national peers for a reduction or abolition of fees while there was blatant xenophobic and violent intent in the protest taking place outside the police station on the other side of the town. But the protestors all have one thing in common: the state is not listening to them, and it hasn’t been listening for a while. And it is violent in its wilful disregard of the needs of the citizens of this country.

The xenophobic attacks that have taken place in Grahamstown are the result of several factors. Firstly, rumours that a Bangladeshi/Pakistani/Ethiopian/Somali man has been killing women in the town and storing their body parts in a fridge are rife and these rumours are frequently used as the justification for the attacks. When I asked an anonymous policeman the validity of this claim he said they had no suspicion that this was the case. The fact that I heard the same story several times in the course of the day, during which only the nationality of the perpetrator changed, gestures to the foreign nationals’ positions as scapegoats in the collective consciousness of the looters and attackers. It must have been one of ‘them’. It is shocking that a nation so historically and traumatically broken by systemic processes of othering and oppression, continues this history of oppression, particularly of people who seek refuge in our communities.


The second reason for the xenophobic attacks and looting is poverty and a lack of education. And this is where the irony of the dual protests lies. At the university currently known as Rhodes, students are protesting because they have a right to free and equal education, and that right is being withheld by the severity of the fee increases and the high cost of fees in general. In the town, the working and unemployed classes are protesting because they are suffering a lack. There is a lack of sanitation. There is a lack of housing. There is a lack of employment. There is a lack of education. And this lack is the result of years of governmental mismanagement and active disenfranchisement of the marginalised poverty-stricken. And it is a violent lack, a violence committed by the state against a frustrated community, and a frustrated nation.

An educated citizenship would ensure fewer or no attacks on foreign nationals. But education is so woefully lacking in resources and skilled educators at primary and secondary level, and so underfunded at a tertiary level that people cannot afford to become educated. So they are forced into low-paying, high-risk, insecure employment positions, outsourced at a poverty wage. And then they begin to get angry, and target the most vulnerable in protests that have been violent, angry and dangerous.

It is state violence that allows the arrests of student protestors at the University of Cape Town to take place and it is state violence that allows them to be charged with High Treason. It is the same state violence that has neglected thousands of families in Joza, east of Grahamstown, without running water and without sanitation for 21 years. It was a violent act to fire stun grenades at students protesting peacefully at East Cape Midlands College in Grahamstown, and it is a violent act when government spends millions on unnecessary housing upgrades and expensive travel.

The fact that so many South Africans live below the breadline, live in unbearable poverty and suffer economic oppression is a violent act committed by the state. When the SAPS fire rubber bullets at students that violence becomes tangible, recognisable and for the most part we shame them for it. When the SAPS fire rubber bullets at xenophobic looters we assume we are being protected. All that really occurs is that the crowd is dispersed, only to join forces further down the road. The dissent is not quelled. Resolutions are not offered. Negotiations break down and people get angrier.

How long can government keep kicking this can down the road before it turns into a grenade, and one that can do a lot more than stun? Consider this the precursor to an explosion Zuma, Nzimande, Parliament. Consider this time for a change in policy, a change in leadership. Consider this time to put down your guns and start listening to what the nation is saying.