When we prioritise books over people, we only create new symbols of oppression

A library went up in flames, and it’s all some of us can think about. For those who attended UKZN, like myself, it’s personal. These are our libraries. It’s where we learned to read and write in the language of privilege, to argue and fight. It was our respite during exams, our hideaway from the clamour outside.

It is only natural to be stirred violently by the developments at UKZN. To be sick to the gut, to be upset, to feel claustrophobic and to cough in the smoke.

Asking why this is happening is a start.

But asking “Why are students resorting to such heinous acts?” is too easy.

Because usually the answer is easy too.

Look for instance at how Prof Jonathan Jensen describes it: “This is what tinpot dictators and the Taliban do.”

Jonathan Jansen FB

I am not part of the Jonathan Jansen haters club but why such ignorance from someone who has reportedly benefited from these very books? The Taliban? Tinpot dictators? Really? But since he’s asked, can the professor also comment on how violent reactions to systemic racism and privatisation of education espoused by so many so-called democracies are better than the tinpot democracies, or the Taliban? Do they both not mock education in one form or another? Or is the destruction through the lexicon of prose what distinguishes civilisation from destruction through matchsticks ?

Why are libraries at the top of the agenda when there are real people being abused by security, police and university management?

Let’s be clear here, the student protest at UKZN didn’t start yesterday. Students have been protesting at UKZN since mid-August.

Protests at UKZN for 0% fee increment for 2017 have reached Durban

The students want their right to education to be secured without the impediments of fee increases, with adequate and safe housing, and to be involved in decision-making processes at the university.

Nothing has been resolved. In fact, their concerns have barely even been acknowledged. Why are we surprised that we are now here, at this impasse?

Besides updating the public about opening and closing the academic calendar, the number of arrests and “millions of rands in damage”, UKZN management has been silent on the wave of discontent gripping its campuses. By failing to engage with students and to provide a space for students to air their dissent, they are complicit in the burning of these centres.

During the height of tensions of the #FeesMustFall protests last year, and despite criticisms from various quarters, the vice chancellors of Wits and the University of Cape Town at least attempted to meet with students and hear their qualms. UKZN vice chancellor Albert Van Jaarsveld has been noticeably absent from the scene.

Are we so immersed in this terror narrative, like Jansen, that we don’t see how systems of oppression create monsters?

I am not going to throw in a perfunctory disclaimer to lament the burning of the Howard College library, or any other centre of learning or destruction to public property, because, really, who wants a library to burn?

Libraries are the stories of our past and future. But what are they in the face of an abusive present? If libraries are sacred ground, the sustainer of that which is good and powerful, then why do they burn so easily? Is knowledge not meant to be a living, breathing thing, created to make the world a better place and not ensconced in ivory towers?

When we revere libraries more than we do people, we only create new symbols of oppression.

  1. Brenda says

    Library buildings are like dam walls. Both hold together a valuable resource for growth and development. If you break down the dam wall because you view it as oppressive, what happens when that resource (water in the damn, information sources in the library) is gone. Who wins and who loses the most?

  2. Aanisah says

    The situation right now is not as simple as choosing a side ie whether the strikers or police or university are to blame… All are some way at fault…Please stop reporting from this biased angle…. The issue of police brutality is important but none seem to report on why this started in the first place… Yes we regonise the plight of the protestors but will they go on to an extent where they do not think about the consequences of their actions ? The security/ police assault students. Protesting students burn property. People can be hurt in both instances. Both are equilly wrong.

  3. Shameema says

    Really, Azad? Really?

  4. Dylan says

    I love how so many are blaming UKZN for the violence and instead side with the students. “We must understand them” they say, “People aren’t listening to them” they explain.

    Has it not occurred to you people that universities are under zero obligation to acquiesce to the demands made by students? Listening to students doesn’t mean they have to do what they say; and because they don’t that does not give anyone the right to go on a riot.

    The students are the ones who started the violence, and you don’t treat violence with kid gloves. Which is why the police and security had to use your typical riot control practices of rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and the good old baton. If students want to go on the rampage they can’t go cry foul that the university and police use these tactics. As the saying goes: if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

    South African’s need to understand that protesting against something doesn’t necessarily make their cause valid and that the authorities must give in to them.

    Not only are the protestors at UKZN demand 0% fee increases, debt forgiveness and easier access to debt but, in the same wonderfully incoherent breath, they demand better facilities and more security!

    Enough is enough.

  5. Clint says

    No Azad I do not agree with you and I have said this to you. Burning is not a resort, destruction and inhibiting others’ rights to learning is not okay.


  6. Lucy Graham says

    Thank you for writing this article.

  7. Sbo KaMajoka says

    Azad thank you so much for shedding light to this issue. Your perspective on this matter is a breath of fresh air, compared to the sheep-like narrow opinion with under tones of bourgeois-ism that have dominated the space of public opinion.

    If that library at Howard college is a privilege of a a rich few and is not accessible to the poor majority, then it becomes an abomination a symbol deserving all manner of loathing from the society it fails to emancipate.

    This country is built on blood and a history of atrocities meted against the majority of this country – the massacre at Sharpville, the killing of young people in 1976 and the victims of Vlakplaas torture methods who are not found to this date. This country has went to great extents to protect privileges of a minority even if it meant resorting to barbaric acts of violence such as described above.

    So people like Dylan and their opinions fueled by strong undertones of racial prejudice are complicit to this type of behaviour. They do not wish to involve themselves in a nation building dialogue but would rather be antagonists of efforts to build a truly egalitarian society. But then again I may not blame such people for thinking this way, because their minds have been conditioned around braai stands by those same Vlakplaas operatives who are their family members.

    1. Dylan says

      Funny, you look more like the one who doesn’t want to get involved in nation building.

      What’s your view of an egalitarian society? One where everyone is poor?

      Unlike you I don’t view burning important aspects to achieve a better society as getting involved in a national dialogue.

      Your racial prejudices are all for show given your baseless accusations against me.

      1. Sbo KaMajoka says

        My view on egalitarianism is based on equal rights and equal opportunities….now I am really sad that they burnt down that library, you need it more than most people.

  8. Stuart says

    you are so blinded to the importance of this mass loss of literature. Do you understand hspw many original copies were lost in that fire. I agree fully that the matter of fees is one that must be addressed but the University can sustain itself without money. 150 million rand worth of damages thanks to the destruction of fellow students. The only people that can make no fees happen is the goverment that sat quietly watching the university burn. Address the issue with government putting the University in more debt does not help your cause. books arent more important than live but it was still a tragic loss.

  9. Ruan Niemann says

    Azad Essa, writing here, makes the most astonishing strawman argument.

    I reluctantly link it below because I an loathe to share this tripe.

    His premise us that we care more for books than for people, because of the outrage over the burning of a KZN University Law library.

    As a journalist, and editor of The Daily Vox, I can only assume he is smart enough to understand what he is doing, so I am left with the worrying conclusion that he is being intentionally dishonest with his readers.

    Society never decided that there is a battle between books and students. Society never decided to demonize students in favor of books.

    Students took the unthinkable action of burning a law library at a place of learning, Azad.

    Because of some vague accusations of racism.

    Had they actually occupied the law library and read it’s contents,they would understand how to frame their complaints, and use legal means to correct injustices.

    Instead the simply burnt the library, and in so doing, denied future students the opportunity to be better.

    The outrage of society at large is not one of Students VS Books.

    It’s a lament for how low the moral and intellectual bar has dropped for protests amongst students.

    It is outrage at how ‘journalists’ like yourself and the mainstream media attempts to defend the indefensible.

    If what you are saying holds true, and people have genuine concerns with your journalistic integrity, would you support the burning down of your offices?

    Genuine disgust and outrage over the actions of students does not somehow equal society choosing books over students.

    You sir, are a disgrace to your profession.

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