When I first went to Wits University, it was a pretty coddled experience. Upon first year registration, my mom and I drove together from Polokwane and she, also a university graduate, accompanied me along the entire process after having made a shopping trip to get all the necessary items for res. At the end of my first year semesters, if I wasn’t taking the bus, my mom would come and pick me up. By the end of second year, I had a car and drove myself around between classes, internships, and of course, movie dates and the club. I didn’t have to worry about anything except for getting good marks, deciding what it was that I wanted to do with my life and some boyfriend issues. In short, my only job in life was to do well at school.
Year in, year out, I would hear about the marches and protests against fee increments and NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) turning students away. Like many of my friends who were either privileged enough to be on bursaries or have parents take care of their tuition, I simply avoided the designated venues, such as the Matrix or the Great Hall and hurried on to class. It didn’t affect me directly so I didn’t get involved.
Years later with a little bit more consciousness, I decided to return to Wits and when I received my acceptance letter for postgraduate studies at the end of last year, I did at first, boggle at the steep upfront payment of R9 430 and was ‘moved’ to make some remarks to some friends that “kunzima, this is institutional racism”. But that was that, my payment was duly made and I happily looked forward to my year back in the corridors of knowledge.
Now, I might not have been as bad as those high-on-privilege would-be Student Representative Council (SRC) presidents whose election promises were to resolve parking issues, but make no mistake, we are two sides of the same coin.
When the Wits SRC mounted its campaign to close the NSFAS shortfall after an unprecedented number of students (more than 2 000) who had been previously accepted were turned back in January – which at first included protests at Wits and occupation of Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande’s office – what I offered was little more than my two-cents goodwill “I hope they find a solution” and some tweets in support, but I didn’t join my fellow students.
While this was happening, social media reaction to an incident which involved a racist Rosebank restaurateur telling some black patrons to, amongst other things, go “F*** themselves’” after they had complained about the food, led to a suggestion amongst some of my friends to go and protest outside the restaurant.
While I felt strongly that we should stop supporting the establishment by indeed boycotting the restaurant as many people had already been doing, I felt an inexplicable discomfort about mounting a protest against that. So, I didn’t respond to the call to action because I didn’t quite have the words to articulate what my issue was.
After some reflection and speaking to some of my friends, I realised that my discomfort was the ease with which I could get up to protest my lack of access to a restaurant in one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburbs and yet I had never thought once to go and join some of the student protests about bread and butter issues spurned by our institutional racism.
Some weeks later, I was perhaps ‘saved’ from my need to join the protest and could contribute financially to the SRC’s ‘1Million1Month’ that sought to raise funds to augment the NSFAS shortfall.
Yesterday, I had not meant to go to the ‘1Million1Month launch’ at Wits, (because I had excused myself as someone who is studying full time while working full time ‘on the media struggle’) but as I walked to my car after my last class, I decided to “drop in briefly” to the launch of an initiative which by has received national attention, including Advocate George Bizos as an ambassador and mention by President Jacob Zuma in his State of the Nation Address.
Needless to say, I didn’t stay briefly and was there until the end of the event some two hours later as I watched and was inspired by firebrand youths who were clearly committed to this institutional struggle of our lifetime either by virtue of painful firsthand experience or, despite their privilege of a secure education, had an understanding that that pain was theirs too.
Outside of the feat of raising more than R1 million in less than a month, I was extremely proud of the SRC Vice President’s closing remarks to the effect that: “This is not a solution. This is only a response to a structural issue.”
The most poignant for my generation in general and middle class black students in particular, came from the last speaker and former Wits student, Lebo Mashile:
“I am disappointed by the demographics in this room…This is not a poor black issue. This is everyone’s issue.”
Lebo admitted that, like me, is a former Wits student who’d had her fees taken care of by parents, and so she had never been interested in student affairs and politics. For the first time, she felt time she felt connected to the university.
Likewise, although I had heard the experiences of many friends on bursaries and NSFAS, and my own parents who went to university on government grants and scholarships, it has taken many years for me to really understand the level of privilege that I have as a second-generation university graduate from a middle class background. For many years, I have been race conscious and unwilling to accept our society’s naturalization of white supremacy and more recently I have become gender conscious and unwilling to accept the naturalisation of patriarchy. However, I had yet to really become class conscious and unwilling to accept our society’s naturalisation of inequality and class exclusion.
Now, no one wants my guilt. What is needed is my solidarity and for me to commit to what the Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral (who was much quoted yesterday) theorised as ‘class suicide’.
(Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Vanguard has the name that it does? Maybe I’m flattering myself with this analogue?)
It’s with this in mind, that Vanguard’s theme this month is “Fuck the System”. Not in the kind of haphazard anarchist way that is self-serving. We mean being deliberate about not being complicit in a society that continues to marginalize the majority of black South Africans on the basis of their race, gender and class because it privileges us to do so. We will talk about the fact that we cannot hope to end racist incidents such as the terrible Northern Cape rape case with ‘dialogues’ unless we are willing to end structural racism. On the culture front, we will celebrate those who have not compromised on their values and their blacknesses, starting with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and bringing it home with the likes of Kalawa Jazmee who have created spaces for unapologetically black music. We celebrate brave cultural figures such as Binyavanga Wainana who have been brave enough to come out on Kenyan national television and Cleopatra Kambugu whose life as a Ugandan transgender woman is documented in ‘The Pearl of Africa’.
We hope that this is part of a contribution to creating a situation where those of us privileged black South Africans who “speak well” and sometimes achieve “first black” status, and often (sometimes incorrectly and other times not) labelled “coconuts” and “tokens” do what is uncomfortable to use and relinquish our privilege in service of our fellow black brothers and sisters who are struggling against, in the words of Lebo Mashile, “institutions that don’t have a vision for us.” To be clear, this doesn’t mean we are here to be messiahs, it means we are here to be allies in this, if I may say, neo-struggle, of ours.
As I write this I am fully aware of the contradictions. I write this on my Apple mac, while sitting in the North of Johannesburg with the luxury of a flexible job and paid up school fees. I don’t have the answers. I do believe the best place to start is honesty about my complicity and from there I can begin to make a meaningful contribution. I am searching and hoping that many of us will continue to challenge each other to find meaningful ways to undo the structural violence that we participate in everyday.
We hope you enjoy this issue.
Make a donation to the 1Million1Month campaign:
Account name: Wits Foundation
Bank: Standard Bank
Branch code: 00 48 05
Account type: Business Current Account
Account no: 002 900 076
SWIFT code: SB-ZAZ-AJJ-480502
Reference: NSFAS/SRC InitialSurname
(i.e. NSFAS/SRC SDlamini)
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