Violence begets violence

2016-09-25 06:07

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‘Our forefathers were not heard until they went on strike, and retaliated by burning and demolishing stuff to get their voices heard ... Our fathers attained democracy by acting out, and we will get the #FeesToFall by acting out.”

These sentiments, expressed by University of KwaZulu-Natal commerce student Simangele Mbanjwa in a recent media opinion piece, are a sad indictment of the way in which using violence in protests against injustice and corruption has become the norm.

However, the reference to previous generations attaining democracy by “acting out” is a gross oversimplification, because the lives of black people under apartheid cannot be compared to the challenges university students are now facing, and trivialises the struggles the victims of apartheid engaged in.

Ironically, all evidence points to much of the pre-1994 protest violence, including the burning and demolishing of what was then the University of Natal property, being fuelled by the hidden hand of the apartheid security apparatus.

While it is by no means proven that all the recent damage to university property was caused by students, all protest action can easily be hijacked by opportunistic forces unless all possible steps are taken by the protesters to prevent that from happening.

By the 1970s, there was increasing infiltration of groupings opposed to apartheid by its police. Many feared to speak openly, including on the telephone.

A letter writer to The World newspaper before its 1977 banning opined that in a grouping of three people, one would probably be a police informer.

By the late 1970s, the state stepped up its campaign to remove whole communities out of “white” South Africa into Bantustans and, at a mass meeting of affected communities at a hall in Durban in 1981, one of the targeted communities – Chesterville – was represented by struggle veteran Pitness “Stalwart” Simelane.

During the meeting, Simelane became agitated, and informed me that a woman who had just arrived, claiming to represent Chesterville, was linked to the security policeman who had been keeping a watch on him when he was charged in the 1956 Treason Trial.

This woman was at that stage working to ingratiate herself with the Black Sash.

By the 1980s, the state had devised its strategy to deal with what it perceived as the total onslaught, with the military extending its tentacles into civil society.

This was the context in which student activists operated, and many of them paid dearly for their brave struggles, including with their lives.

The cream of provincial youth leadership was among those targeted by police or vigilantes in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were waves of detentions, often accompanied by torture, and various other forms of abuse.

In March 1987, a 17-year-old female KwaMashu Students’ Representative Council (SRC) member was abducted in town, driven by disguised men to an unknown area, questioned about the identities of other SRC members, and assaulted repeatedly by men who clearly had information about her.

When she refused to take off her clothes, they held her down while one ran a knife over her clothes, cutting into her, before cutting and ripping off her underwear and taking turns to rape her, laughing as they did so.

They finally decided to let her live, and dumped her, blindfolded, in Umlazi, where a resident gave her money to travel home.

The day before this incident, the bodies of seven schoolboys who had been abducted were found near KwaMashu.

Such were the dangers faced by student activists. Some were turned during detention into informers, but the police often just said people were informers, knowing they would probably be killed.

One of those murdered in Chesterville was teacher Philemon Khanyile, and notorious security policeman Frank Bennetts described to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how he had framed Khanyile.

By the late 1980s, many comrades were battling to maintain discipline as their ranks had been infiltrated by com-tsotsis, criminals who the police allowed to operate with impunity.

It was in this context that a grenade exploded at the then University of Natal in May 1992, causing huge damage to a chemistry laboratory.

It followed protests over the academic exclusion of a student (Knowledge Mdlalose) in which a prominent student activist, known as M, had played a pivotal role.

Evidence showed M, who was seen leaving the precinct when the grenade exploded, and was in possession of grenades that night, was the culprit.

M had been a student at various tertiary institutions and, although he had never progressed beyond his first year, exerted tremendous influence over young comrades by claiming to be a lawyer.

When the security police visited the scene of the explosion and were told that M had been seen in the vicinity, one commented that he was “trained in the use of explosives”.

M was also seen near a burning motorcycle in the centre of Durban during a protest march against the death of Chris Hani.

M reportedly worked for the military as well as the security police, and had been linked to incidents in which comrades had died after being handed primed grenades.

What evidence there is also suggests that the fires that gutted offices in the university’s Memorial Tower Building and Shepstone building in 1986 were orchestrated by the security police.

Apartheid-era members remaining in the SA Police Service now serve the democratic government, but protesters, including idealistic youth, are unwittingly using the violent protest tactics perfected by the apartheid state.

Students have legitimate grievances over the lack of sufficient tertiary-level funding, but there is no comparison between their struggles in a constitutional democracy – with various other options available to them – and the completely powerless youth under apartheid who were left with no option but to resort to struggle tactics.

Tactics now open to students include the ballot box, peaceful lobbying and protest action, and an insistence on dialogue. They can also study part time, like their forebears did, towards qualifications.

The blame for the current funding crisis lies with government, which fails to halt obscene corruption, billions in irregular expenditure, and keeps bailing out badly run parastatals rather than investing in the country’s youth.

Its bloated, overpaid and largely ineffectual Cabinet is a disgrace.

However, it is essential that the university executive (and staff) find ways of engaging meaningfully with students, not only about the fees issue, but also on other protest-linked grievances.

They must investigate serious allegations about ill-treatment at the hands of badly trained police and private security members.

We all need to know why, despite the presence of security, campus property was not properly secured.

There are also allegations that instigators of some of the violence are not University of KwaZulu-Natal students, and may even be squatting in student residences (a practice rife during protests in the 1990s).

Peaceful ways of resolving the impasse must be found because violence begets further violence.

De Haas is an activist in KwaZulu-Natal


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Read more on:    simangele mbanjwa  |  university fees  |  democracy

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