71. Student Protests Versus Internet Warriors

The Star (South Africa)
25 February 2019

Dr. Duduzile Zwane

South Africa has a long history of discord between students and the education system. Every institution of higher learning probably has an informal schedule that depicts its expected onset. The intensity of these protests escalates annually. In the latter part of the 2000s, they were relatively tame. The protests typically involved a small number of students who wandered around the campus, singing apartheid-era struggle songs, while timidly clutching placards with pleas for financial aid. They have since evolved into a ferocious movement that is reminiscent of the 1976 Soweto uprising. Protestors now surge into the offices of university management and present ultimatums. A case in point, would be the recent hunger-strike at the University of the Witwatersrand, where the students stormed Solomon Mahlangu House to make their demands.

The media coverage tends to document the magnitude of the chaos. The focus is usually on historically white institutions such as the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and University of Cape Town (UCT). The plight of students with a predominantly black student body such as the University of Limpopo (UL) and the Technical Vocational Education and Training College (TVET) is often ignored by the mainstream media. However, what is profoundly disconcerting is the often callous response of the South African public on all media platforms. If one scrolls through the comments section of any online newspaper website, one is assailed by a torrent of vicious commentary by “internet warriors”. The consensus appears to be that the “riotous” student protest action weakens South African universities. The anonymity of the online world allows us to see how candid South Africans can be when there are no repercussions for their opinions.

Accusations of militancy are popular among online media commentators. Their solution is for the students to be docile disciples of prejudicial university policies. However, it should be noted, that every university prides itself on its capacity to produce critical thinkers who ultimately create positive change in the world. In fact, the mission statements of these institutions typically state their commitment to producing future leaders and captains of industries. By definition, leaders are outspoken, goal-oriented individuals who persevere until they accomplish what they set out do. Therefore, it is deeply hypocritical to criticise protesting students for initiating a movement that grants everyone equal access to education. It should also be noted that the authentic transformation of an unfair system is never a peaceful process.  It is often gruesome and grimy due to the questionable bureaucratic tactics deployed by university authorities, when they face forceful opposition.

Many online commentators seem to believe that complaints about racial inequality are exaggerated. South African universities have, however, been historically formidable structures that grant entry to an elite minority. Due to the country’s history of apartheid, these privileged entrants were predominantly white and middle-class. While this trend is changing, the pace remains painfully slow. Despite this sad reality, the stance of most of the South African online community is that the students who highlight this colour and class-based discrimination are irrational. It is astonishing that determining people’s right to education according to the pigment of their skin and the depth of their pockets is considered normal by these reactionary internet warriors.

Conversely, protesting the policies that perpetuate this discrimination is considered abnormal and a corrosion of the academy.

South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, elicited a commitment to unconditional equality as enshrined in the country’s Constitution. The expectation was for equality to permeate into all of South Africa’s social structures. Equal access to quality education would have been a potent strategy for ensuring that this goal was achieved. Essentially, South Africa’s protesting students have been asking for an opportunity to learn how to be self-sufficient members of society, like their more privileged white counterparts. They also appear to be demanding accountability for what was promised to them 25 years ago. While most students probably accept the difficulty in introducing the concept of equality to a nation that found the idea abhorrent for so long, knowledge repositories such as universities should not take a quarter of a century to grasp it. These ivory towers are perceived as housing progressive thinkers more amenable to change than the average person on the street.

The internet warriors also criticise the protesting students for infringing on the right of other students to learn. It is interesting to observe how concepts such as “unity” and the “rainbow-nation” myth are applied selectively. For example, whenever the pain caused to the black majority by the apartheid era is raised, those terms are dispensed liberally to anaesthetise this wound. However, when inequalities in accessing education are raised, South Africa’s cohesion as a nation is conveniently forgotten. All of a sudden, everyone becomes individualistic and adopts a selfish stance.

The lack of empathy that is often shown to underprivileged student protestors, is more damaging to universities than these fleeting strikes. Some of South Africa’s greatest thinkers such as Steve Biko who studied at the University of Natal, were products of disadvantaged backgrounds. Nevertheless, they went on to accomplish many an extraordinary feat after studying at the university level. Also, look no further than Nelson Mandela who studied at the University of Fort Hare. His expulsion for participating in a student-led protest is pertinent here. Who is to say how South Africa’s story would have unfolded had he not been afforded a higher education?

The frustration of South Africa’s internet warriors with the students’ protests indicates an inability to accept that violence is multifaceted. It is easier to focus on the perceptible aggression that accompanies these protests, than the more passive hostility of university management. The tepid reaction to the justifiable rage of students is more destructive to universities than actual broken windows or vandalised walls. These faceless online-critics may wish to consider these issues the next time they summon the key-board courage to criticise student-led protests.

Dr. Duduzile Zwane is a Research Coordinator at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.