If we burn for justice, what will be left?

Sello Hatang

It has been one year since students shook up the establishment and called for "fees to fall", and now we find ourselves once again facing a violent confrontation between students, the university establishment and the government. Underpinning this violence and anger has been the inequality and lack of capacity of the state to provide financial resources and opportunities.

At the Nelson Mandela Foundation we have engaged with both students and university administrators during this difficult time. We have worked with concerned citizens and civil society to intervene when violence erupts at universities. We remain willing to intervene, contribute, collaborate and support when necessary to create a safe space for dialogue.

A continued shutdown of our universities will have disastrous consequences for everyone; from students, to parents, to the companies and departments that will hire new graduates. Hospitals will lose their medical interns, schools their teachers, and businesses their new graduates. This will all take place in a context of an already ailing economy battling with high unemployment and entrenched social problems. The impact will be devastating.

How we work our way out of this stalemate will require compromise and political maturity. While the ideological underpinnings and details of providing free education require substantial unpacking and discussion, we also have to focus on immediate concerns. It is my belief that in the short term there has to be a renewed agreement on the rules of engagement of protest. Violence, intimidation and a disrespect of democratic process has no place in our country.

The scenes from the University of Johannesburg, Rhodes University and UKZN have shocked us with the sheer brutality being meted out. The appalling treatment of journalists should also concern us all as journalists, like health workers, occupy a sacred space and should be allowed to continue their work without fear. We have to increase the accountability of the perpetrators of violence, be it students, private security or the SAPS. We also need to consider new models of justice that move beyond purely punitive actions and we must protect democratic and fundamental rights of all. However we also need to realise that to respond by burning will not result in justice. If we burn in the name of justice, we will only find or create more injustice. There is a Setswana saying “Kgori e bona lee, lerapo ga e le bone". Loose translation: One only sees the good of one's actions and never takes time to see the bad.

The vast majority of South Africans want to see a prosperous and united country. However, we differ on how to get there and how to make it work. While we will never achieve a universal consensus, we can look for ways in which to base our arguments and to make our case on solid evidence and deep engagement with stakeholders. Many of the complaints and problems of students extend beyond the walls of the university to the unsafe streets and lack of affordable housing in the city, to the high costs of debt, to the inability to obtain nutritious, healthy and affordable food. Our problems as a country are inextricably intertwined. While we may analyse in terms of rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban and other binaries, solutions will invariably have to account for multiple facets, narratives and socio-political contexts. 

Fees Must Fall is a representation of a broken system. Of the tiny minority that reach university, we need to realise that the vast majority are left behind. For many children the first 1 000 days of their lives map out their entire future, a future set because of entrenched poverty and inequality. That child, already hampered by having little access to nutritious food, a lack of educational stimulation and an unhealthy environment, must then try to spend the rest of their lives fighting for every chance. Fairness and the fight against inequality does not start at 18 years old, but from early childhood instead. If we are to protect and nurture the next generation and to allow all to compete on an equal footing, we must begin to think holistically.   

It is within this context that our work with the Mandela Initiative becomes so important. Launched last year, the initiative seeks to create a base of knowledge - academic and grassroots - to tackle the multiple problems that plague our country. While some of the most respected academics produce research on poverty and inequality, this is augmented and influenced with an engagement with the "grassroots" and the functionaries that keep our economy going. We have to find a way of "doing differently" and to do this we need to see the world from multiple "lenses". The student movement has dared many of us to break the mould of our thinking and to challenge our tightly-held dogmas. Yet our responses to the challenges of poverty and inequality remains stuck in cycles and paradigms, devoid of real innovation.

As we move forward and build on the work of the Mandela Initiative, we look for these solutions. These solutions can take multiple forms, be it broad macro-economic and policy shifts or the work that farmers can do in providing equitable and inclusive solutions with their farm workers. Building an equitable and prosperous future requires a re-imagining of South Africa and it is once again our young people who have jolted us into action and pushed us to accelerate. All South Africans, both rich and poor, need to realise that the inequality of our system is unsustainable.

The Chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Njabulo Ndebele, delivering the 10th Annual Helen Joseph Lecture, asked us to seek the answers to the questions that follow violence and burning.

He asks, "When will the fires be tamed, and what will it take to tame them, so that new art work can be forged, to create new industries and forge inventions to meet the needs of a people in intimate dialogue with their new world?

What will it take to tame fire, and to remember that fire can be a companion to invention?

To remember that for fire to play its companion role requires a lot more thought from those who use it, a lot more investment in time and focus to understand the rich complexity of people living in the social realm, so that the challenge of thought and imagination stretching across time into the centuries ahead can be met head on."

As we work toward taming the fires and we look to the vision of a new future, I hope the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Mandela Initiative and active citizens can be a part of this crucial work.

 - Sello Hatang is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

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