By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)
Reflecting on comments made at a lecture a few weeks before the #FeesMustFall protests began, Thato Magano says that after seeing how Wits University used three black bodies for the expediency of acquiring a court interdict, he finally intimately understands how the system of law is rotten.
So a few weeks ago, during the Fanon fest in the weeks leading up to the #FeesMustFall movement, progressive academic, Kelly Gillespie, in response to Achille Mbembe’s assertions that there was a ‘lot’ still to be salvaged in the South African democracy project, told Mbembe that the system as we have come to work within it, is rotten. She said that the law was rotten, the abuse of ‘ubuntu’ by those that benefit from marginalising others’ humanity is rotten and made several other illustrations of what she considers to be elements of the rotten ‘state of being’ that we continue to exist under.
Over the past three and a half weeks, I have reflected a lot on Gillespie’s words as we have occupied space and time with the #FeesMustFall movements, at Wits and the rest of the country. Theoretically, I compartmentalised and understood what she meant when she said the law is rotten, that it is broken. Following several incidents of police intervention on various campuses across the country, I could also argue that the system was rotten, that the law was rotten. Drawing on historical incidents of police intervention in civilian matters, most recently the Marikana massacre, I could always be in the affirmative, advancing the same argument.
However, it was only this past Wednesday when I found myself and several others at the High Court, just after 22:00, as an interdict was awarded to the University of the Witwatersrand, giving the institution authority to call on the South African Police Services (SAPS) to intervene whenever the university believes that there is a security threat or any activity that disrupts the ‘normal functioning’ of the university. That the parameters of the interdict were vague disheartened many, as it just illustrates another way through which systems of power continue to silence black voices that are speaking out and disrupting the [ab]normal functioning of the systems that continue to make this country function.
This particular interdict was achieved through accusing [indicting] three young black male students for crimes that at best, the university has circumstantial evidence to link with the young man arrested. These three young black [male] bodies were used as collateral in a continued game of the valueless nature of black bodies, orchestrated by a system that will employ any tactic conceivable to its imagining, denying the black body its dignity. I imagine the rationale from the university went something like “we need to get an interdict to stop this noise around campus. We have three black [male] bodies whom we suspect might have been up to untoward behaviour by walking around campus or asking questions to campus security. So we can use them to get this thing, damn the consequences for them and their future. Damn our commitment to “advancing the public good”.”
As we consulted with the advocate that represented the students, he impressed upon the group the greatest implication of being an accused – the system of law, under ‘normal circumstances’, runs for a period of three (3) years. Yes, three years. He told us that in these three years, as an accused person, the autonomous functioning of your life is on hold until the matter is resolved. You cannot go anywhere for indefinite periods as you might be called upon to appear before a judge or needed for several miscellaneous processes in between until you finally get to stand trial.
And here is when the penny dropped, intimately so, that something is fundamentally rotten, fundamentally broken with the system of law. Three black bodies have had their lives stunted. PERIOD.
The entire time the advocate explained to us the implications of the interdict for all parties concerned, I kept thinking of what this means for the future of these three young black males. Among a milieu of other implications, what it means is this – for the rest of their lives, they will have a criminal record that they will always have to explain. They will have to explain why, as is their fundamental right as students to walk on campus at any hour of their choosing, they were walking on campus and were unfortunately in the vicinity of some suspect happenings and were apprehended. They cannot, in the next three years, pursue international studies if they were so inclined. More importantly, they cannot, for the next three years, at a minimum, lift the very real threat of a conviction that will hang over their lives.
They are at the beginning stages of what can be called a life continually in the state of ‘stuckness’. Stuck between trying to move forward and make a new life yet always reminded of this one event in their student careers. They are black and male and now have to contend with an unnecessary criminal record, as if the intersection of race and gender was not an impediment enough.
What kind of university, as its first priority should be the welfare of its student community, allows itself to willfully stunt the development of these young black males? What is it about the university, with all its institutional might and systems of governance, chooses to look outside into the criminal justice system for resolution to what is ultimately a student matter. What is it about a university that is “a world-class research university in Africa … renowned for its commitment to academic and research excellence …and … contribution to the global knowledge economy and local transformation through the generation of high level, scarce skills and innovative research” makes it okay not to think of how it limits the potential for development of the students it indicts, without any clear threat or danger to the university, by sacrificing them in what could have been a matter resolved through internal university governance structures?
What makes it okay for a university that champions itself as being “at the forefront of a changing society … as an engaged institution, dedicated to advancing the public good” to forego all reason and use these young men to achieve its ends? What is the public good that was done here when for the sake of expediency; three black male bodies were sacrificed?
This incident, this interdict is just but one of the many illustrations of how black lives, black bodies continue to be sacrificed in service of systems of governance that are anti-black. Whether it is #FreeQualityEducation, #EndOutsourcing or the many other campaigns happening all over the world aimed at restoring the dignity of black lives, the law, as a system that acts as an arbiter of whom deserves dignity and to what extent, has made it acceptable that black lives are fungible. That they can be erased and conquered in aid of the grander liberatory project for those that have systemic advantage and access.
It continues to make it so by granting interdicts that threaten and silence black student voices and by also accepting that universities can be allowed to conduct its governance through civilian, legal structures. It does so by threatening vulnerable workers with termination when they want to exercise their democratic right to assemble and voice their dissatisfaction.
The law as a system of governance is rotten. It is the greatest systemic tool at the hands of a capitalist system that serves to render black lives valueless. To echo Gillespie’s words, I now intimately understand why there is nothing to salvage in the law and by extension, the broader South African democracy project as it currently is. Perhaps after fees have fallen and workers are insourced, the student community can direct itself towards this totalitarian project.