Have we lost all respect for our elders?

2017-03-30 17:38

I was part of the National Skills Conference that recently took place in Pretoria, and I listened with intent the moving speech delivered by the Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, at this conference.

This article is not necessarily about the National Skills Conference, important as it may have been, but about another important matter I took out of the speech delivered by the Deputy President. I have  been really disturbed, like any sober South African who has been following and witnessing the manner in which some of the students have been conducting or behaving themselves as we try, as a country, to find solutions to the current challenges we are facing in the higher education sector, particularly around student funding.

So much has been communicated, particularly by government as to what is being done to arrest the challenges in the sector. There has been a lot of engagements, particularly between the Department of Higher Education and Training and Student Representative Councils. Funding continues to be made available by government through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, in making sure the poor of the poorest students and those from the middle class families, as we have come to identify them, are also afforded an opportunity to study, graduate and break the cycle of poverty in their families and in the main to ultimately contribute to the economy of our country.

I watched with disgust, live television visuals, of the conduct of students at the recent higher education national convention which was put together under the leadership of former Deputy Justice of the Constitutional Court, Dikgang Moseneke.

I was flabbergasted when a young fellow took to the podium to refer to the Minister of Higher Education and Training as “this man here”. “Comrades, this man here is going to address us, to tell us the same things we have heard before”, said the young fellow. This is not just a student by the way, he is one of the student representatives. Also, think of how Vice Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib was treated. I thought, is this how students want to be represented? We were not raised this way, to disrespect the elders in this manner!

This young fellow did not show any sign of remorse in the manner in which he addressed the convention, he cared less of the tone he used. He was not alone though; he and fellow student representatives took turns to the podium, with anger. This anger seemed to have been the only thing they wanted to display in front of cameras. I really do not think the intention was to debate the issues at hand. They knew very well that the convention was beamed live on television, thus they couldn’t miss such an opportunity. An opportunity to insult, an opportunity to be seen by millions of South Africans who were watching at home and unfortunately what they probably thought was also an opportunity to become heroes. Yes, heroes. Heroes because there seem to be competition amongst some of these students about who is more vocal amongst “us” as students and who is not afraid of “them”; them being either the decision makers or those who engage decision makers on matters of this nature. This was an opportunity to appear militant in the eyes of the masses. I have always argued though, that militancy must be accompanied by substance, if it lacks substance, it is as good as a mosquito disturbing one from a good night sleep.

The Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mduduzi Manana has a number of advocacy programmes he undertakes at high schools across the country. I have been part to a number of these programmes, as an employee in his department. It is disturbing, the kind of student behaviour we sometimes witness at some of these schools, young as these students are. It really is a worrying trend. If this kind of behaviour is not well managed at primary and high school level, it shouldn’t really surprise us what we are seeing at tertiary level today. It starts small and if not well managed, it becomes uncontrollable by the time one reaches tertiary.

Probably one question is to be asked, what role is our parents playing in instilling respect amongst our youth, beginning at home?

In his speech at the National Skills Conference, the Deputy President said “South Africa has to remain a country where we work together to find solutions to our challenges, where dialogue, reason and consensus triumph over insults, violence and intimidation”.

What we saw at the recent higher education national convention is the complete opposite of what the Deputy President was talking about. It was even harder to digest the disturbing scenes at this convention because one does not expect such poor conduct from university students. What happened at the convention and continues to happen in other platforms is disturbing and unnecessary.

“We do not accept the kind of behaviour we witnessed at the first sitting of the Higher Education National Convention. Such disorder does nothing to advance the struggle for accessible, inclusive, quality higher education”, lambasted the Deputy President.

I pondered; what is it really that our students want? Well, we know the obvious and that is why our government and those involved continue to work harder to find solutions. The obvious is the current challenges our higher education sector is going through. What is not obvious though, is to identify the possible hidden agenda some of these students continue fighting for, under the #feesmustfall banner.

When things do not make sense, what starts happening is that people will be suspicious and they will raise their concerns and question what is happening.

In his weekly columns, Xolela Mangcu, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town lambasted University of Cape Town students who disrupted the recent lecture of the world renowned writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

“When the erosion of the distinction between young and old among black elite is transferred to university campuses, you have the makings of a toxic bourgeois radicalism that despises its own African values”, said Mangcu.

Mangcu’s article questioned deeply how young people should conduct themselves when engaging in conversation with their elders. He was disappointed and did not understand what made it possible for young people to mount the stage and grab the microphone, “just as someone old enough to be your grandfather is about to speak”. When you read Mangcu’s article, you realise that the reason they disrupted the proceedings is because they demanded the speaker to ask whites to leave the hall. They called him names when he refused. How Atrocious!

This is exactly what we saw happening at the Higher Education National Convention. Both the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib and Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande were blocked from addressing the convention. It was disturbing to witness such an act.

This convention was a special sitting which provided an opportunity for the exchange of ideas about the thorny issues regarding higher education funding and curriculum content. It was however, a lost opportunity because of the chaos that erupted. As Xolela Mangcu said, students have ready-made insults that no one can keep up with. He continues to say though, that vulgarity is not revolution, it never has been.

I want to speak to students directly here. You need to start electing representatives who understand the issues affecting you. You should not elect people who are just vocal. You need to elect leaders who are vocal and know what they are talking about; leaders who will represent your constituency well and with dignity.

Again, elect representatives who read and understand the issues. It was also disappointing the different definitions you gave to the concept of decolonisation when you took turns to the podium. I think it is time we have a serious debate to unpack and have the same understanding of this concept “Decolonisation”, particularly with you students.

We cannot reduce every disagreement to chaos. The fighting has to stop. The insults have to stop. The empty militancy has to stop. There is no need for heroes, we don’t need such, not today. What we need today, is debaters. We need communicators. We need listeners. We need respect, not only to our elders, but amongst ourselves as well. We need, all of us, leaders who understand what it means to be patriotic.

Our student leadership, together with its constituency need to self-reflect and face reality. The reality is that the country is facing tough economic times, thus all the decisions made are informed by this factor and other factors in the environment we live in. The reality is that there is a commission currently doing consultations on higher education funding, which we all need to allow space to do its work. The reality is that we need to find a better way of engaging with one another, because the chaos and disrupting engagements at every turn we get is not taking us anywhere. Should this kind of behaviour continue, we will leave our elders and leaders with no choice, but to deny us the opportunity to sit at one table for more engagements.

Delivering the eulogy at Uncle Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral, the former President, Kgalema Motlanthe said this of self-reflection. “Self-reflection means a process of subjective becoming by consciously grappling with objective reality. Self-reflection amounts to questioning the very basis of the underlying postulates that frame the way we do things”, he said. It is not too late to adopt a different tactic in how we engage one another.

I really want to encourage our students, to also take from the words of the Deputy President, that as we look to the future, we should reflect on where we come from. Our democratic government took over a deeply divided nation in 1994 with the nation characterised by extreme poverty, severe inequality and entrenched exclusionary practices.

The fact and again reality, is that our government has implemented polices to reverse the racial inequalities in education. It has expanded access to both basic and higher education. A lot more has been done and continues to be done to make South African a better place.

This reality has to be appreciated by our youth as they demand more to be done. Let us put these achievements at the back of our minds as we engage different stakeholders.

Allow me to steal this quote from an unknown author: “respect your elders. Learn from the people who have walked the path before you. Respect them. Because someday, and sooner than you could ever imagine, you are going to be old, too”.

By William Somo

William Somo is a Communication Practitioner in the Department of Higher Education and Training. He writes in his personal capacity.

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