When news broke on December 24 that #FeesMustFall activist Kanya Cekeshe had been released in the early hours of that morning, the twitterverse exploded in celebration.
There were cute quotes from his lawyer, Wikus Steyl, about the young man having missed his mother’s food during his incarceration.
“The first thing he did when he got home was go straight through to the kitchen and ask his mum to make him breakfast. He said he never wants to eat prison food in his life again,” Steyl told news outlets.
The elation and gushing would have had you believe that the person who had just been set free was a Salvation Army volunteer who had been wrongly accused of stealing orphans’ food when, in fact, he was on his way to feed them.
This valourising of Cekeshe followed a concerted campaign to have him released on the grounds that he was a “political prisoner” who had done nothing more than campaign for everyone’s right to free tertiary education.
Sometime last year, a petition signed by prominent South Africans who were activists during the anti-apartheid uprisings stated that “Kanya’s sentence is unfair and unjust given the context of heightened tension and protest in which his actions occurred”.
“Greater leniency ought to have been applied in the granting of bail, conviction and sentencing,” the petition said.
Yet another widely circulated petition claimed that “Kanya Cekeshe is not violent, and whatever happened in the protests under the unreasonable provocation of the police ... does not justify the harsh punishment he is receiving from the state”.
Glossed over was the fact Cekeshe was convicted of setting alight a police vehicle during the 2016 protests.
I repeat: He set alight a vehicle belonging to the SA Police Service.
How such a person suddenly becomes an angelic martyr is a mystery.
In fact, it is an indictment on the criminal justice system that only he and fellow student Bonginkosi Khanyile – who admitted to using a slingshot against the police – were convicted and sentenced for that hooliganism in 2016.
This is not the 1980s, when the state was the enemy and the police force was the repressive instrument of the regime and therefore a legitimate target.
The behaviour of the police during the 2016 protests was so restrained that it was frustrating.
During that time, these young people who had come to institutions of higher learning to seek knowledge saw libraries, laboratories and lecture rooms as targets for vandalism and arson.
At some point, there was even a plan to attack a centre housing the Rivonia Trial archives and other precious records.
And so, just a month after our hero Cekeshe’s return to free life, his inheritors were back at it.
Last Monday, the SA Union of Students began what it called a #TotalShutdown.
This followed their failure to convince the department of higher education to bow to a shopping list of 15 demands that, given the state’s fiscal position, simply cannot be met.
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and his department were actually very reasonable and accommodating.
The list of demands, which Nzimande was supposed to respond to within “seven working days”, ended with the ominous warning that “we are ready for anything if the above demands are not attended to as a matter of urgency”.
Since Monday, when the protests began, university property has been vandalised, buildings have been torched and even cars belonging to fellow students were targeted.
Most heartbreaking of all, registration of first-year students and the beginning of orientation week were disrupted.
Starry-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters who had travelled from far and wide were chased out of registration centres and lecture halls by violent mobs declaring that their tertiary education could not begin until the selfish demands of their seniors had been met.
When North-West University reacted to the violence by evicting students from the premises, the SA Union of Students cried that no alternative shelter had been offered to the students.
“This, naturally [will] result in homelessness, which affects the most financially vulnerable students, regardless of their involvement in the protests,” said the instigators of the chaos.
There is no telling what will happen when the academic year begins in earnest this month.
But what South Africa cannot afford is another year in which a war on education is waged by those who do not appreciate the damage that this is doing to the quality of our institutions of higher learning.
South African universities have a very good reputation and do well when rated internationally.
High-paying students from around the world – particularly Africa – come to South Africa because they know the value of the qualifications they will receive here.
Armed with these qualifications, these students, as well their local counterparts, have summitted the world.
But this war on education, which is encouraged by the glorification of hooliganism and the valourising of lawbreakers, is damaging the value and reputation of our tertiary sector.