Black bodies and the theatre of violence
It is rather surreal for those of us who were actively involved in the struggle for liberation to watch our children and grandchildren battling the police with stones and petrol bombs, to see them appearing in court on charges of public violence, to listen to them talking about decolonizing the country and its education system, and to hear some of them glorifying guns as a method of contestation in the present period. It is a searingly painful spectacle.
We were involved in this fight against the white racist settler-colonial regime that only spoke to us with brutal force, detained and tortured many of us, sent legions of us to Robben Island and murdered many in the course of that titanic struggle between oppression and freedom. Some of us went into exile and trained in the art of war in pursuit of liberation.
The advent of a democratic state governed by a component of the liberation movement lulled us into believing that our children and their offspring would never experience that sort of pain.
There are many veterans of the liberation struggle who are still emotionally and psychologically scarred by their experiences. Some cannot hold jobs, maintain relationships and others abuse substances. That’s what some will describe as post-traumatic stress disorder. So, to this day, there are veterans in our midst who are still paying the price for our freedom.
It is disconcerting to listen to some senior academics at the University of Cape Town talk about the trauma suffered by some of the students in the #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall movement. They talk about students being disowned by their families, losing their bursaries, their studies discontinued and a few being rendered literally homeless. What did we fight for? How did we arrive here? Or is it a case of things remaining the same the more they change?
Our generation must carry the blame
Those of my generation who fought for freedom and brought the country to this point must carry most of the blame. We should be ashamed to hear our offspring talking about decolonising the country and its education system.
The truth is that once democracy was achieved, my generation did not push on in the quest to decolonise every facet of our lives. The result is that, twenty-two years after the arrival of a democratic state, the country remains anti-black in the economic, cultural and social spheres. The demand by our children for the decolonisation of education should lead to some serious soul-searching on the part of my generation.
Secondly, although we all acknowledge the obscene levels of poverty and inequality in our country, we did nothing to curb the escalating costs of tertiary education. The measures taken to cushion the poor students are not near enough, resulting in untold suffering of these students at our universities.
Thirdly, the methods of engagement adopted by both the state and the protesting students are wrong. There must be a difference in methods of contestation in a settler-colonial setting and those in a neo-colonial arrangement.
There was justification for violence and armed struggle in the confrontation with the oppressive regime that maintained its rule over us by force. But the present government has been put in power by the citizens and it is therefore legitimate. In this arrangement, there is space for mobilisation and contest that is free of violence.
That said, the state bears great responsibility in creating space for that engagement with the youth and more importantly, listening sincerely to their issues. There is a great deal of agreement that the decolonisation of education and the plight of poor students as raised in the present juncture are valid. In that case, why are students being chased with rubber bullets and teargas instead of engaging with them around the table?
We should kill the psychology that devalues black souls and bodies. As a negation of the colonial and racist mentality that saw black bodies as devoid of value, worth and dignity, and therefore as fair game for brutalisation, we should deliberately avoid turning our bodies into theatres of violence.
We should cringe at the sight of students throwing stones at the police and the latter shooting rubber bullets at the former. It is fathers, mothers, uncles, nephews, nieces, daughters and sons brutalising one another. What does this do to the fabric of our society? In the context of our country, we are just continuing to devalue the humanity of black people just as the racist regime had done for centuries. Have we perhaps internalised the mentality of our colonisers?
In South Africa, the space for robust and peaceful engagement still exists. Let’s exploit that space and eschew the brutalisation of the black body. We can’t chant: “Black lives matter” in Africa. It’s bizarre.