Linda Fekisi

[intro]Campus protests continue to make headlines across the country prompting some to call 2016 “the year of the student.” At the University of the Free State (UFS), students are continuing dialogues in the aftermath of the Shimla Park incident when rugby supporters violently clashed with protesting students and workers. While students have vented their anger and frustrations through dialogues arranged on campus, this week saw the university begin processes in the lead up to the official hearing of the Shimla Park enquiry.[/intro]

It’s been over two months since the tragic events at Shimla Park on the Bloemfontein campus of the UFS. The incident led to a campus-wide shutdown. While students continue to question the pace of transformation, university management has set up an enquiry to look into the incident. Four legal minds will lead the enquiry. They are former Constitutional Court judge Justice Johann van der Westhuizen and advocates Mduduzi Skhosana, Molebogeng Kekana and Phoebe Labuschagne. Advocate Labuschagne is a state advocate with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

This week, evidence leader Adv Skhosana invited willing participants to submit oral, written, or video testimony during the official hearings.

The panel is due to report its findings to the University Council later this year; however it is not only the university’s formal management structures that have been hard at work to bring perpetrators to book and encourage debate about the incident.

The Student Representative Council (SRC) and the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) on campus introduced a series of dialogue sessions that led to a colloquium, which took place earlier this month. The colloquium covered topics such as decolonisation of the curriculum, white privilege, black consciousness and alternate funding models for higher education.

Sikhululekile Luwaca, the student representative for Dialogue and Associations, described the aftermath of the Shimla Park incident as a period in which the university community is being offered a moment for reflection on the process of transformation; and said that the talks became vital once the university reopened.

We decided to run the process of transformation parallel to the academic project. That is when we made the commitment to begin the dialogues because there has to be space made for engagement, and the process of transformation has to run parallel to the academic project,” he said.

He stressed that the purpose for these dialogues was not to embark on talk without results. “A lot of things have been brought to all our attention during the dialogues and the rationale of the colloquium was to bring everything into context,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves why people feel comfortable enough to beat us up,” referring to the violence seen and experienced first hand at Shimla Park.

I chaired one of the most difficult meetings when we resumed classes after Shimla Park, when the government said that the university can take any necessary steps to try and combat what was happening in higher education. It was not safe. It is not safe now for students to continue protests and they were not going to yield any positive results because the academic project had to continue,” said Luwaca.

Atmosphere at the dialogues

The dialogues, attended by mostly black students, looked at topics around transforming colonial culture and symbolism on campus.

I think the white people who have been with us during these dialogues are courageous,” Luwaca said. “Most of our white counterparts have a perception that we are violent as black people. If we were violent we would have by now beaten any person who was part of the Shimla Park incident. We are angry but we are trying to look at how we get out of anger.”

Luwaca continued to describe the sessions as a way to come to terms with the violence that occurred during the peaceful protest earlier this year, and to allow students to grapple with the definition of the term ‘transformation’. Students have received the dialogue sessions with mixed emotions.

Refiloe Rantsieng, a first year journalism student, said that they created a safe space for black students to be vocal about their concerns on campus. “For the first few weeks [the dialogues] were very productive because they afforded black students a chance to come together and speak out about what has been happening on campus,” she said. “After a few weeks they became monotonous, people weren’t bringing solutions around what the institution can do to better the conditions of black students who are angry.”

Rantsieng also raised concern about the low numbers of female representation at the dialogue sessions.

Women are never represented in these spaces and I don’t know if it’s partially our fault but we don’t speak out in these spaces. The guys that attend these talks, they tend to make the space intimidating. They intimidate people and I think women feel intimidated then because it is normally the same voices that speak,” she said.

Black anger

Mpho Matsitle, a postgraduate financial planning student, described the dialogue sessions as an ‘anger management’ tool by the institution and the SRC. “You know Frank Wilderson said that the role of the black politician is to manage black anger and from my interactions with them, they fit that description of a black politician,” he said. “It’s how we’ve worked in South Africa since 1994. When something happens we sit down, talk until it bleeds and nothing gets done.”

Matsitle got into a heated debate with one of the guest speakers at the colloquium, Prof Christi van der Westhuizen, during a session on white privilege and the participation of whites during the struggle of black people. “I think what I raised was an old question. Malcolm X also raised it,” he said. “Steve Biko also said that white people should go and organise in the white community. That they shouldn’t be in front of black people. There is also a white girl on The People versus the Rainbow nation who’s a member of RMF, I reckon. She put it better by saying that her role in the RMF is auxiliary and that she should not be in front, she should not be leading.”

His main argument was ways in which the presence of white people compromises the self-esteem of black people. “Black people are in this position because white people put us in this position. Now it’s [going] to happen that they put us out of it which simply means that black people can’t do anything for themselves,” he said. “White people should be involved in the process of transformation in their communities. Whenever white people are involved in our struggles they take the centre stage,” he said.

Luwaca was adamant that the dialogues have been fruitful and will continue throughout the year alongside the official enquiry into the Shimla Park incident.

Image courtesy of Lihlumelo Toyana.