As I was preparing myself for this trip in the fall of 2015, I was saddened and horrified to encounter a number of news stories about violent protests erupting on university campuses throughout South Africa (don’t tell my mom). Some of the issues include rising tuition fees, the use of Africaans as a mandatory teaching language, and allegations of racism. All of these factors have resulted in inequitable access to higher education for Black South Africans.
Edwin tells me that a number of campuses remain closed. When I asked about the violence, the senseless destruction of university facilities, and was there not an avenue to have conversations about these things, he suggested that perhaps people were (justifiably?) frustrated after decades of seemingly fruitless conversations.
Yesterday as I tried to leave the library, I noticed that a large metal door had been partially lowered over the main entrance and that a man was shouting outside demanding admittance. The security guard escorted myself and some other students out through a back door.(sorry about the crappy photo quality – I only had my phone on me)
Does your university library have a giant metal gate that can close over the entrance? I don’t think mine even has security guards.
A number of young black African men and women were gathered in the courtyard below, while many white onlookers peered down from the overpasses. When I asked one student what was going on he irritably muttered something about ‘black workers.’
I went and sat on the steps for a while (after the speaker invited her white family to join them below) and tried to figure out what was going on. I was very moved by the passion of the speakers in demanding justice for the 150 workers who had been fired following protests the previous fall (there have been no displays of violence on this campus) and for pay and opportunity equity for all university workers. I found the signs that the participants were holding (including “70% of land in the hands of 13% of the population” and “No justice for Black students at White universities”) to be particularly evocative. I later found out that the university workers had joined in solidarity in with the students protesting colonial statues on campus. There were apparently some clashes earlier between the students and the private security forces the university had hired for this planned protest.
I was also particularly moved by the singing of the people gathered. Ever since Edwin told me about his audio mapping project (Getting down to work), I have become interested in capturing the sounds around me (and have added an audio file of the Camps Bay waterfront to the Touring the Township post). Luckily I have started carrying my audio recorder around with me (although not my camera -grr) and this is what I captured:
I came home at the end of the day brimming with positivity and energy following this experience. I was inspired by the stand that the students and workers continue to take to confront the inequities at the university. My roommate, however, had a very different take on the issue. I guess she got stuck in the student life center for a couple of hours when they went into lock down, and was outraged that these ‘riots’ had wreaked havok with her day. I countered that there were no riots – I was there and what I saw was a peaceful protest.
“Well they were swearing!”
“Okay, but I’d probably be swearing too. I think people have a reason to be upset, and I think it’s cool that they’re taking a stand for what’s right.”
This then deteriorated into a diatribe about ‘these people’ and I had to leave the room. Maybe she’s right – maybe everyone has had enough with the disruptions and the dissatisfaction and would just like to see things quietly carry on. I don’t know, since I’ve only just arrived here and don’t have an appreciation what things were like this past fall, or at any point in the past for that matter. It does seem very clear that she and I are approaching the issue from drastically different starting points.