There is huge disconnect that exists in South Africa today. This is a divide between the various political parties, regardless of whether they are wearing African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA) or Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) T-shirts or of any other political formation, and the citizens of this country. There is a growing uneasiness developing where the political agenda seems to be the only narrative that matters and this narrative is often behind the curve of those who are looking for change. That chasm continues to develop because many political leaders are out of touch and focused too often on their own narrow and often misguided interests.
Yet, contemporary party politics continues to be a myriad of confusion that continues to coat every element of our democracy. Politics continues to give us an endless supply of gaffes, missteps and above all else the space where self-interest shines. Somehow South Africans remain optimistic and hopeful. We continue to hold onto the idea that change is possible despite this lacklustre and uninspired space that has become contemporary party politics.
Over the past year, and more recently just this week, we have seen the rise of student-led organisations and movements at the various tertiary institutions across South Africa. The statements from these organisations or movements have been met by varying degrees of ridicule and disdain by many ‘elders’.
The criticism is reminiscent of many other moments in our history when the status quo was challenged by a group of committed and often young citizens. The symbolism, the structural nature of apartheid and its degradation and systematic attempts to destroy South African’s consciousness is often brushed away by words such as “reconciliation” or the “fact that it’s in the past”. These are empty words especially when citizens today feel that they today are not valued, respected or heard. The suffering and legacy of apartheid has become a lived experience for so many ‘born-frees’, and many communities that are still struggling to have a better life.
The recent Dianne Kohler Barnard issue, which saw a DA MP share a post via facebook which reminisced about the days of PW Botha and his illegitimate regime, has highlighted how important perceptions and the legacy of apartheid are in a South African context. Despite, this recent example, many South Africans will still denounce the remnants of South Africa’s dark past, which sought to systematically degrade and destroy the will, the culture, and the livelihoods of the majority of South Africans.
It is important to note that the movement for change across the various tertiary institutions is not the perfect exercise of forming a social compact. However, it is important to remember that political parties and their various formations are not at the nexus of these formations. Citizens, often young students, have begun to articulate their frustration (in their own imperfect and flawed way) with the legacy of apartheid, transformation, structural inequality, racism, sexism, justice, and broadly injustice.
All of this is happening while the contemporary political stage remains transfixed on the local government elections (and elections, generally), President Jacob Zuma, the leadership race of the ANC, how Mmusi Maimane and the DA will chart their way forward and how the EFF and Julius Malema will deal with the legal battle in the Constitutional Court over Nkandla.
The shift in the narrative is important in a world that is dominated heavily by the agenda of the political elite. An important reminder to all who don’t fully understand or appreciate what is happening at South Africa’s student campuses. The events at the University of Witwatersrand have imploded because of a proposed 10.5% fee increase but the collision was always going to happen given the nature of the discourse between students, Professor Adam Habib and the university management.
Historical and contextual amnesia is not a uniquely South African phenomenon yet so many people in our collective leadership have adopted the approach of burying their heads in the sand. The amnesia dangerously informs the decision makers and the administrators at the University of the Witwatersrand should be reminded that the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town seemed impossible and “until it (was) done”.
The country seems transfixed on these contemporary party political issues yet there is a very different narrative developing across our academic institutions. It may be a narrative that makes many people uncomfortable but just because it is dismissed or vilified does not mean that it will go away.
Movements for justice and fairness will always have their moment to define the collective narrative. We will have to choose how we confront the issues before us. We will see more of these independent voices streaming into the South African narrative. South Africa needs a moment where citizens, independently and motivated beyond the reach and mess of contemporary party politics, are focused on building a new narrative coalescing around aligned and similar voices calling for justice and fairness.To ignore these voices will result in a violent and often disruptive outcome, which will not serve the interests of South Africans, which will often differ from those of the political players, and will continue to perpetuate historical amnesia, which we can ill-afford in these troubled times.