Dear white people: It’s time your bubble was burst

2016-10-07 12:57
Wits University was brought a standstill this week after the announcement of an increase in tuition fees for the 2016 study year. Students at the university were protesting against the fee hikes and boycotted classes. Picture: ELIZABETH SEJAKE

Wits University was brought a standstill this week after the announcement of an increase in tuition fees for the 2016 study year. Students at the university were protesting against the fee hikes and boycotted classes. Picture: ELIZABETH SEJAKE

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This letter was originally published on

I tried to write this article a few days ago but I just stared at the blank screen on my desktop for what seemed like hours. How do you try to convince a person to care about something that is so foreign to them that it feels like a different world? How do you make people care about something that matters so much when their minds have forbidden them to give any meaningful thought to it?

What brought all this on is this: last week I attended a family gathering. It was a slow, soft afternoon characterised by small talk, chicken pie and gourmet salads.

It was as though there was an unspoken agreement that nothing would pierce the bubble that had been carefully placed around us. Then, unexpectedly, amid an exchange about someone’s children’s private schooling, the bubble was burst by a passing comment on the burning of university buildings. “Talk about cutting your own arm off,” one woman said mid-eye roll.

That’s the thing about these spaces: there is an assumption that everyone is in agreement with you and that there will be no consequence or challenge to what you say. The bubble is the safest space in the world and there isn’t really a need to think very deeply about your opinion or to challenge your perspective when everything you say, no matter how predictable or racist, will be accepted.

It’s almost impossible to believe that, while we sat there munching our buttery pastry, no one really knew what was going on on the other side of the wall (both figuratively and literally). That students were being shot at, teargased, expelled, kicked out of their residences and left bleeding, homeless and helpless. Of course they knew! The question is then ‘why didn’t they care’?

This is not an article where a white person tells another white person to ‘check your privilege’, it’s not even an article defending the protesting students or to convince you that what they are doing is right. It’s simply an attempt to puncture your bubble in the hope that, eventually, you choose to step out of it.

In true millennial style I have a deeply conflicted love/hate relationship with social media. Much of the hate part comes from the fact that I still have many of my high school teachers and classmates as Facebook friends. I really don’t know why I am online ‘friends’ with people I haven’t spoken to in years.

Their online lives mostly go unnoticed until a national event or crisis emerges and their opinions somehow find their way onto my newsfeed. Most of their opinions fall into the “predictable” category of middle-class white South Africans and since most of them block me when I try to respond to a status I thought I could flesh out some of their arguments here. No doubt none of the arguments below will be new to any of you.

On Wednesday night I watched the video footage of the police brutality at Rhodes University. I sat on my bed and cried. But, horrifying though the seven-minute film was, watching it wasn’t what made me cry – it was when I started reading the comments that followed that the tears began to flow. “Disgusting criminals,” one read. “They deserve everything that’s coming to them,” another said.

The footage shows a young black man standing in the street. Although clearly enraged, he isn’t physically assaulting anyone, he doesn’t have a dangerous weapon (which is apparently now a stone in the eyes of the police). He is just standing in the middle of the street, screaming with anger so raw it makes your head spin.

He is telling of his reality and the hardships he faces as a young black man 22 years after our first democratic election. He is then arrested by force; he is dragged violently across a tar road and shoved into the back of a police van. He is arrested for speaking a truth so obvious, so supported by literature and research and stats but so willfully ignored and denied by those of us who choose to live our middle-class lives. But he deserves it, many of you say? Why? Because he was loud, because he was shouting? Because he was black? Because he made you feel uncomfortable?

The clear strategy of disruption by students obviously makes many feel angry. Why do ‘they’ have to break things? Why cant ‘they’ just follow the process and engage rationally? The thing is, none of the problems students are protesting against are new.

Students have been financially excluded for years; black students have been facing racism by lecturers and fellow students for years; female students have been getting sexually harassed and assaulted on university campuses for years; free education has been put on the table by students FOR YEARS.

It would be wrong to assume that students haven’t been trying to fight these battles by following ‘processes’ and working through the university ‘structures’. Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who has served on a university SRC, students have historically not been listened to, they have been undermined and patronised and pacified. They have never been treated as equals in committee meetings and during fee negotiations and it’s time university management acknowledges this error on their part and takes responsibility for the measures that students have had to go to just to be heard.

Early last year the #RhodesMustFall movement at UCT occupied the admin building for almost three weeks. When the statue fell and the students vacated the building they left behind no damage. Determined not to have the workers suffer and do extra work the students vacuumed, mopped and cleaned every inch of that building.

This is how the protests started but the interactions in the months that followed with violent police, brutal private security and management teams determined to victimise students has surely changed the terms of engagement. Why do we continue to vilify students without being critical of those who get paid to stalk them, harass them and beat them?

Yes, it is unfortunate that buildings are being burnt and property is being destroyed but the assumption that the money that will be used to fix the damages would have gone to student funding is flawed. That’s simply not the way the university or the state works. What is missing from the conversations happening in the bubble is WHY are students so angry that they would want to burn a building? What have these protesting students been put through that they are willing to sacrifice everything they have to make the world better?

Living in the bubble seems to have stripped away our empathy; we can no longer radically empathise with those whose lives are different from our own. The “if I were them I would…” is simply ridiculous because bubble dwellers will never know what it’s like to be a poor black student, to be so desperate for change that you are prepared to gamble your future.

You should care about #FeesMustFall because it matters, because there are levels of analysis to the protests taking place, because it’s waging war on poverty and shining a light on the education crisis in this country, because South Africa is unequal and unjust.

As the days ahead of us remain uncertain may we remember that those in the bubble will always have more protection than those protesting on the ground. So let’s think deeply about the safety and future of this country’s youth – because they definitely weren’t born into a beautiful rainbow.

This letter was submitted to YOU and has been minimally edited.

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