Mme Nomboniso must also condemn the violence from the establishment that drives protests at universities

    GOPOLANG BOTLHOKWANE thinks the outcry against students at UCT incinerating university property must also acknowledge that what is considered to be acts of violence in protests cannot be understood without the context of police brutality.

    Whenever there’s a protest event that seeks to challenge the structural inequalities of South Africa, there’s always a swift rebuff from politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens. Last week’s protest at UCT was no exception. The responses were swift and sweet. The most notable response was from someone who has always publicly supported the students.

    Mme Nomboniso Gasa is also someone who has won at this social media game. She’s famous on Twitter for, amongst other things, calling to order to someone who equally holds the social media slayer title – our minister of sports Fikile “Razzmatazz” Mbalula when he tried to tell her that how he conducts his business as minister is none of her business.

    As the portraits of Jan Smuts and other colonial figures burned in the parking lot of UCT and the handcuffs of eight UCT students made the clicking sound we are used to hearing when locking our doors, Mme Nomboniso’s fingers were burning too. In a stream of numbered tweets we’ve come to know her for, she expressed her disappointment and shock at the direction the protest was taking. As someone who has walked the same road as the students, she understood the fervour of the protest but still felt the students were taking a wrong path.

    “Protest, but don’t burn property or be violent” was her message, echoed by many others since. UCT students have never made it a secret that through their protest they are trying to bring attention to the bigger societal issue that is inequality – and the systematic exclusion that perpetuates it. They’ve also never shied away from tackling their critics head-on. Their response to the critics of their Tuesday night actions was as always simple: it’s bigger than us and we have no choice but to fight.

    Mme Nomboniso’s voice as an elder and an intellectual carries weight, and it’s people like her to whom we look to when we want to make sense of things. When she speaks, we listen, as was evident from the number of retweets and likes her Tuesday night tweets got. The tweet that read, “I am in no way attempting to police or control,” showed she was conscious of how her tweets might come across. And how betrayed or sold off we might feel, but she insisted hers was an attempt to help the students while in the thick of it.

    Scrolling down my timeline, reading her tweets and retweeting the cry for legal assistance by the Rhodes Must Fall movement, I felt no help. I did not see how calling the students’ protest a mistake was going to help anyone. The next morning I woke up to watch the news with my mother and felt like I was reading her tweets all over again. My mother was merciless. She did not want to hear anything else except “violence begets violence”. For her, the students, by burning portraits, have called for a violent response. I know she meant well. But it still feels like betrayal.

    When students protest there’s a big insistence on non-violence and order, but the responsibility to be non-violent is never placed equally across the board. Responsibility should be shared among those who wage the protest and those who maintain the order of things. The disappointment at the students’ actions of Tuesday night expressed by Mme Nomboniso and others would have been fair if they also gave a nod to police brutality. Yes, students were burning property but that is anger, not terrorism. The students were not armed with rifles and bombs. And counting Marikana and Andries Tatane, the South African Police Servies are culpable as well.

    Disagreements on healthy, acceptable forms of protest are plenty. But just as we disagree about the forms of protest, we should disagree about our responses to the protests. How fair is it for respected intellectuals who claim solidarity to publicly shun or denounce protest action at its height or most active? As we asked the students to avoid the mistakes of the past, we should also demand our authorities to take a good hard look in the mirror.

    Concerns raised by people like Mme Nomboniso Gasa are important and no doubt will be helpful. But when we are teargassed and dragged bleeding into police vans, we are conscious of people like Andries Tatane who never even made it to the back of the police van.

    It would be even more helpful if the police were also challenged to show restraint and apply a humane way to crowd or protest management. The student protests present an opportunity for everyone to do better.

    Gopolang Botlhokwane is a Creative Writing student. He writes from a shack somewhere in a South African village. He dreams of an Azanian Spring where the marginalised youth rises to demand change and all that was promised to them.

    Featured image by Ashraf Hendricks