The student movement that flashed into life this year in South Africa, from #Rhodesmustfall at the University of Cape Town to the extraordinary #Feesmustfall protests last week in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Grahamstown and Pretoria, is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Lots going on there. But there are two things I’ve been trying to think about. Two things that they are “getting right” (that’s the phrase in my head). Two elements that have held us in thrall, enthralled even as we participate here on the outside, that make it feel so momentous.
One element has been their use of disruption to open up space, to interfere with the old game with its rigged and futile moves, their refusal to play along anymore. And then to occupy the space and not let any new game begin. Standing vigil, wide awake. Holding open the space where we could imagine something new. This manner of disruption and occupation gives them (and the rest of us) a chance to think differently, to breathe, to find their/our bearings with each other, to be quick and bold and lively.
The other element is the way this manner and bearing has been expressed in their practice of non-violence and their reinvention of anti-racist activism. This is not Biko’s black consciousness and it is not the ANC’s non-racialism. It’s new, entirely of this generation, and, at the same time, entirely recognisable as a continuation of South Africa’s popular liberation movement. (I heard so many anti-apartheid veterans – the parents, grandparents and teachers of this generation – gasping last week with the shock of the familiar.) The students’ bearing was expressed in their confidence, their solidarity with campus workers, their commitment to inclusiveness and, at the same time, attention to the intersections of race, class, gender and other social positions. The way they took responsibility for themselves, each other and the ground they stood (and sat and marched) upon. Their impatience with bullshit. Most of all, their disciplined deployment of the sword of non-violence.
It seems to me that none of this, right now, is a matter of ideology or theory. It’s drawing on another kind of imperative, another kind of strength. May we continue to sustain it. Because right now, in this moment, these students are holding open a wormhole to an unknown dimension of our future. We don’t know what will happen next, or how long it’s going to take, but right now, in this moment, another future is possible.