Fahrenheit 451: The temperature at which books and common sense are burnt

“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” (Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people) – German poet Heinrich Heine.

Post-apartheid South Africa has had its fair share of burning. In May 2008, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a 35-year old Mozambican, was burnt alive during xenophobic violence that flared up on the East Rand. He was to become known as “the burning man”. Justice never came for Ernesto Nhamuave. An inquest found that no one could be held accountable for his death. Nhamuave and every other foreigner killed in xenophobic violence remains South Africa’s shame while our government cannot even speak the word “xenophobia”.

As with everything else in South Africa, the reasons for xenophobic violence are complex. Rising levels of inequality and in particular high youth unemployment create an environment ripe for blaming “the other”, while competing for scarce resources. We know only too well also that violence has always been a part of the South African landscape; physical violence and the violence of language and name-calling.

Ahead of the recent local government elections, Tshwane burnt as Luthuli House sought to impose its own mayoral candidate, Thoko Didiza, despite community resistance. Homes, schools and tyres burnt. In Vuwani, a demarcation dispute turned violent and we watched powerlessly as 23 schools burnt. Frustration and anger boiled over for days. In countless pieces of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard over and over again. “They only come when we start to burn things.” They would refer to the media and the politicians who have the power to change things yet often are unwilling or unable to listen.

This past week, students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal burnt part of their law library in anger. The protests for free education and the abolition of annual fee increases had been running for 20 days. Throughout the campus shutdown, our minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, seemed conspicuously missing in action.

Much ink has been spilt about whether burning books and torching a library is justifiable in a democratic South Africa. Ironically, the sight of burning books takes one back to apartheid days when houses where raided and books burnt by the security police because of their “subversive content”. We have come a long way – and then it seems we have not.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we “do politics” in South Africa if burning is seen as the only language with which one can be heard. But equally, there must be something fundamentally wrong in a society where young people believe that destruction can pave any way to a meaningful and better future.

The nihilism displayed in burning a library tells us something about the careless way in which the preservation of knowledge is viewed. It seems that those students responsible inhabit a world in which there are no boundaries to their conduct and in which democracy becomes a casualty of their collective rage and the urgency of the moment.

Our society is deeply unequal, its structures and systems designed to keep people out rather than create economic and social inclusivity. The post-1994 form of “empowerment” as evidenced in Black Economic Empowerment has created a wealthy, often vacuous class of individuals while communities rarely benefited.

“Transformation”, once the buzzword, has now been replaced by that catch-all, arcane slogan, “decolonisation”. Students often and lazily bandy about Frantz Fanon as if the objective circumstances that formed the backdrop to his The Wretched of the Earth find identical expression in South Africa, 2016.

Burning has thus become one potent symbol of the new #movement which demands easy, quick solutions to complex challenges. The rage has found expression by burning artworks at UCT, torching vice-chancellor Max Price’s office, burning buses, and now burning a Law library at UKZN.

Some argue that this “new normal” is acceptable in a society marked by structural inequality. But what replaces burnt libraries, burnt schools and burnt books? What rises from the ashes and what sort of society do we imagine then beyond the narrow “politics of now”? The answers seem neither clear nor obvious at present. For now, destruction appears necessary and sufficient. But if we are prepared to tear down the edifice to be heard, what will be left?

There are some hard truths about the challenges our universities face right now. Quietly, research units are closing down and in someFrantz Fanon those reaching a certain age have been encouraged to take early retirement. Many universities stand to lose experienced academics and to compromise research outputs because of this.

Last week, Max Price tried to contribute to this debate at the Fees Commission in Cape Town. Price has put forward some interesting proposals on the stratification of fees to ensure that those who are wealthier pay their fair share. A reasoned, logical view and one that might provide a real basis for negotiation and reimagining access to higher education in South Africa.

No one really heard Price, however, as he was surrounded by protesting students outside the venue and escorted away under police guard. Students then “took over” the commission that led to its work being suspended. The debate was thus hijacked by a small group of students who claim legitimacy to do so only because of their own anger and “pain”. Yet that should not be the grounds to shut down debate or provide a justification for violence and silencing those with opposing and legitimate viewpoints.

The time has come for the gate-keeping of debates to end, whether in academia or greater public life. A maturing democracy should surely provide sufficient space to both listen and be heard. Complex problem solving requires maturity and compromise. The “all or nothing” approach that burning represents will only ensure that our universities fall into a quagmire of dysfunction. That will ironically hurt the poor the most.

But our situation is made all the more complicated because these are the days of a political leadership vacuum marked by corruption and waste which serve to fuel protest and societal anger.

Our president deems it fit to spend R240-million on his Nkandla homestead without blinking. SAA has been provided with a R5-billion bailout and, rightly, students are asking why this could not have been put towards higher education?

The ANC-led government has thus lost credibility and legitimacy when it says the coffers are bare. It has largely watched passively as vice-chancellors have borne the brunt of student anger. It is hard to lay the blame for structural inequality at the door of individual vice-chancellors even if they themselves have doubtless made mistakes. Yet, they receive little support.

In his only intervention, President Zuma simply ordered a 0% fee increase for 2017. However, where is the plan for higher education that asks some tougher questions about the survival of universities and tertiary education in general? How creative are we about trying to ensure access to education more broadly or are we on the misguided track that going to university is the only way to secure a job and earn a decent living? How much intellectual energy has been put into thinking about rebuilding colleges, about teacher training and schools of skill, for instance? And when and how will we start having this conversation in the midst of the rage and burning?

There are many things to lament in our society during what Achille Mbembe calls this “negative moment” in our history. Post-apartheid mistakes have been made, none more so than in education. We have to accept that and come to a point where dialogue happens constructively. A fees commission will not solve this problem. It will doubtless simply be another Zuma-type “solution” to kick the problem into touch.

The state needs to provide leadership and assistance to those in universities who have proposed solutions. It needs to deal with student anger too and help university leadership (including students) define the terms of engagement. Many have argued that the traditionally white universities (read: privileged) will survive because they are “white spaces”. That is not at all self-evident.

What is self-evident is that the current trajectory is unsustainable both for students and the universities themselves. Fashionable Fanon and Biko quotes will not help us out of the current quagmire. We need solutions and that means sitting down and finding a middle way.

Rage can only ever be a temporary solution. As we have seen in Tshwane, Vuwani and through the tragic death of Ernesto Nhamuave, burning foments but does not solve.

*This article was published in Daily Maverick. To view the article on their website click here

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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