It is the system itself that is violent

Sam Van Heerden says that if we do not see the hypocrisy in raging against damage done to property while being wholly indifferent to the violence enacted on human beings through structural injustice, then we are part of the problem.

Why are we more appalled by students damaging property than we are by the structural injustices against human beings? In fighting for free education, students are fighting back against the structural violence enacted on black bodies by the current political economy.

Structural violence caused by social and/or economic failings harm people by depriving them of their basic needs. Exclusion and poverty are violent conditions enacted by violent structures. This violence is real. The pain it causes is real.

For example, people who are economically disadvantaged are at greater risk for illness due to poor living conditions and unequal access to healthcare. People who are not treated equally in the eyes of the law because of their race or socioeconomic status have their bodily integrity violated – police brutality against black bodies being an example. If these can be linked to structural failings, they are instances of structural violence.

South Africa’s current neo-liberal policies and racial capitalism are culprits in maintaining this inequality in South Africa. The post-apartheid landscape has been unable to reconcile the inequalities of apartheid within these economic and political structures.

Structural violence is obscured because we see it every day. Poverty persists. In South Africa, it has been normalised. We have become so accustomed to the pervasive poverty in our country that we are more affected by a single burning bus than we are by a horizon of informal shack settlements. We have become desensitised to the pain it causes. This structural violence is far removed from our lived realities, so it becomes abstract; psychological distance obscures it from our view.

Perhaps this is why, despite our alleged awareness of and sympathy towards injustices, we become indignant when the trauma of persistent marginalisation and disenfranchisement translates into the concrete. Like “violent” protests against poor service delivery , or protests against exploitative labour practices as seen in Marikana. We forget about structural violence, and then we are shocked when its effects end up on our doorstep.

As Rhodes University economist David Fryer says, because of the way South African society is structured, education is one of the only gateways out of poverty. Graduate employment rates are high when compared to the rates of youth employment more generally. This is one of the many reasons why free higher education makes sense.

It may be just one among a myriad of issues, but change has to start somewhere. And it has to start now. Students are struggling against the inequalities rife both in our country and the world. They are essentially fighting against socioeconomic inequality, which is increasing globally. They are critiquing exploitative neoliberal labour practices, which in South Africa take the form of labour brokering, seen in protests against outsourcing. They are also taking on institutional racism, which is arguably still rife both locally, for example in university structures, and in issues such as police brutality in America.

But there must always be space for criticism, and through it, growth. As Richard Pithouse from the Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University said: “Anyone who tells you that you shouldn’t have debate in your struggle, that you shouldn’t have critique, that you shouldn’t be able to raise questions about problematic behaviour, is really, really wrong. Things can go fundamentally wrong in any progressive space.”

Critics are right in some regards: damage to property hurts people because it often destroys the very resources that are being fought for. But to say this is to miss the point: physical violence is a symptom of structural violence. In the case of aggressive protests, the invisible gives rise to the visible; anger is the sound of pain shattering from long-term impact.

If we had been paying attention to structural violence all along, we would not be surprised, we would not be shocked that a generation of lower to upper middle class youths, born not free but shackled, are disillusioned with the current neo-liberal system and its politics of exclusion. Their frustration with the current state of things lingers like a foul odour that cannot be covered up by pepper-spray and half-hearted sympathies.

So while there must be space for criticism, it is important to guard against those who deconstruct without constructing anything in return. It is not a coincidence that those so utterly appalled by student violence on social media, those who condemn protesters, are often the same people who sit idly by and are indifferent to the injustices around them.

Nor is it a coincidence that the ministerial team established to address the higher education crisis consists of the ministers of police, state security, and defence and military veterans, but not the minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan. Gordhan’s possible retrenchment, following allegations of fraud over the approval of an employee’s early retirement, the laid by the National Prosecuting Authority, will send shockwaves through the country, especially for the marginalised.

The student protests turning violent have arguably had the unfortunate effect of giving the security cluster another excuse to expand their powers.

The coercive capacities of the state are slowly strengthening against an increasingly agitated citizenry. In the taxonomy of violence, the state’s hold on the monopoly on violence grows ever stronger.

I do not condone violence or destruction, and this serves as an act of interrogation rather than justification. But if we cannot see the hypocrisy in raging against damage done to property while being wholly indifferent to the violence enacted on human beings through structural injustice, then we are a part of the problem.

Violence is not only blood and soot, it manifests as indignity and disparity. It is all around us. You just have to disengage from your bourgeois comfort long enough to look. And if we did, maybe students would not have to burn things to get our attention.

Sam van Heerden is a Rhodes University student currently majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Journalism. Her other interests include photography, analysis and thinking big thoughts. She spends also spends an undue amount of time voicing her opinion on social media.

Featured image by Rumana Akoob