Where are the protesting students?

2010-07-27 00:00

A THOUGHT struck me while reading about the protests of pupils at Mlungisi Secondary School last week. Perhaps because second semester starts in less than a week, so varsity was in my thoughts, I found myself comparing these pupils with the university students I see every week and found the tertiary side sadly lacking.

A postgraduate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, my past four years have been shamefully protest-free. Although I generally attend meetings and sign forms when I feel the reason to be reasonable, I can’t remember ever being really involved. Some students I know probably wouldn’t know a protest march if it toyi-toyied up to them naked and slapped them in the face with a petition.

In every imperfect society, one group that can always be relied on to raise hell in the face of authority are the university students. Our own country produced sterling decades of tertiary education protesters last century — pretty much every South African varsity was a hotbed of illegal political activity with placards, pamphlets and protest songs that deafened every­one and thoroughly eclipsed London’s “Free Mandela” T-shirts. The youth of then are the legends of now — defiant, really loud and not afraid to fight.

Of course, there was a lot more to fight for back then, like the abolition of pass laws and the installation of a real democracy. This is the most obvious possible answer: perhaps no students protest because there is nothing to protest about. In a country where approximately 1 300 women and 600 children are raped every day, I am disinclined to take this stance. I’m sure if we really looked hard enough we’d find something.

It isn’t that protesting is too difficult either — never before has it been so legal. The fastest way to get yourself into the news and in front of a judge in South Africa is to shoot at protesters, especially youth of any kind. On the flipside, I believe it would be unfair to say revolutionary students of the seventies and eighties protested because they enjoyed the challenge of police with machine guns, strict curfew laws and possible detention in Vlakplaas. They were so convinced of their right to fight, and how right that fighting was, that they were willing to risk the consequences. It never fails to amuse me how many students are willing to risk a 40% average but wouldn’t participate in a march if it coincided with Grey’s Anatomy.

There’s also the post-modern living theory that states that today’s students don’t strike because they are incapable of connecting with causes larger than themselves, an inability to walk out the front door and engage with reality due to an age in which youths are reared intravenously on Playstations and Nintendo Wii (I’m paraphrasing). Fair enough. However, after doing some research I found that other countries way more technology prone than us have a healthy portion of students vociferously complaining about something at any given time, such as American “The Dream Act” students who protested outside Congress last Wednesday. It seems people overseas can charge without having to be plugged into a wall.

I have my own theory, based on the last two annual residence students’ strikes, which I watched from the sidelines, threatening participants with bodily harm if they pulled my computer plug while I printed my philosophy homework. We do have students who protest, but they are few and far between because students seem not to know how. The residence students were certainly passionate and with good reason, but they didn’t achieve much for two reasons. Firstly, they were protesting as if against a tyrannical regime, not overcrowded accommodation facilities. Call me conservative but I think stone-throwing and screams of “Asim’bonanga” a little excessive. Secondly, they addressed the bulk of their fury towards the front entrance of the library, not to authorities who might have actually been able to help them.

The fastest way to encourage protesting is for people to see effective action getting results. The next time a worthy cause comes up, we university students should try considering our mode of attack and choosing our audience with care before we start waving placards and pitch forks. You never know, it could start a revolution.

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