Shackville vs Ivory Tower – fighting fire with fire.

By Gillian Schutte


This week black youths who were rendered homeless by UCT’s woeful lack of accommodation to match its huge student intake, erected a shack in Residence Road, disrupting traffic flow and creating an ‘inconvenience’ for well-heeled students and staff alike. Along with a temporary toilet and two braais, black students affiliated to the Rhodes Must Fall movement made a formidable statement about how the system fails to understand the intersection between the wider social issues of poverty and homelessness and the economic burden students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are up against.  It also spoke to the fact that while the university may render them homeless, it does not render them powerless as increasingly they have shown that people united against an issue can stand up to institutional abuse.

They refused to remove the shack until Vice Chancellor Max Price met with them. When Price did not come and security was sent with the directive to dismantle the shack all hell broke loose. The Shackville protesters vented their frustrations at not being heard by fighting fire with fire. They stripped the walls of the residences of their institutional art (mostly portraits of white academics and alumni) and threw them in the bonfires of their discontent. They torched a Jammi bus. The police were called in and after a running battle, 8 students were arrested, with six being charged and suspended from the university.

Social media buzzed with disapproving racist or authoritarian vitriol, condemning the students. The fact that they were homeless did not seem to matter. What mattered more was the loss of a few relics of an age that is not resonant to today’s black youth other than as the cause of their endless fight against white supremacy and economic injustice. This is a collective who are up against multiple transgressions of their rights in a system that, ironically, boasts one of the best constitutions in the world. It seems that in this human rights era it is always the victim who is deemed culpable – especially when rising up to claim their rights.

Instead of criminalizing the homeless students we need to ask why only around 6680 beds are allocated for a 27 000 intake of students? What is not illegitimate about UCT accepting so many students when it is clear that they do not have the infrastructure to support this intake? Surely the gamut of social problems this burdens poor black students with is deplorable? And what is the motivation behind this huge intake?

It is all about profits before people it seems and the fact that universities are increasingly corporatised.   When I posed the question on social media forums I was told that these institutions receive a budget according to their student intake, and if they fail to make this intake their budgets are cut. They therefore inflate their intake above what their infrastructure can deal with, knowing that more than half the students will drop out after the first semester due to sheer hardship or failure and will be refused re-admission. They offer inadequate support to the plentiful students in need of extra tuition. The lecture halls overflow into lines down the corridors in the first semester and lecturers are put under immense pressure in trying to cope with this over capacity. This means that a high percentage of students are set-up for failure from the start.

Surely this amounts to an oblique form of modern day slavery, where poor black body is exploited for budget requirements and then spat out the system in the first block? If this does not apply to budget requirements then the university must be making money from enrollment fees of students who are unaware that they are not going to make it in a system that will offer them no infrastructural or other support.  Surely if there is an intake of around 27 000 students there should be infrastructure to meet their requirements and if there is not then the institutions and department of higher education are culpable? How are students, especially those who are systemically disadvantaged by this system, meant to respond to this gross violation of their constitutional rights? How are they meant to respond to homelessness while pursuing academic studies?

If ever a campaign successfully exposed these double standards it was the ‪#‎Shackville protest – a vital and brilliant disruption set up to expose this defective and unjust system.

The same must be said of #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #StopOutsourcing #BlackChildMatters – all of which are angry and expressive protest actions symbolic of the black youth’s response to a postmodern neoliberal reality that on the one hand offers them a freedom denied to their parent’s generation, yet on the other hand restricts them in ways so insidious that it is hard to know if those who profess solidarity are in fact the enemy.

When a former generation of struggle stalwarts become the very people who finance the militarization of campuses, and black academics who claim to be ‘radical’ endorse this military presence, it is hard to know who to trust in this epoch of rampant self-interest, doublespeak and double standards. When academics who claim to be progressive stand by and say nothing about the homelessness of their students, who do the youth turn to for support? The response to the pervasive injustice they are faced with can only come from their lived experience. It can only be innovative, defiant and spontaneous. It has to be rooted in the social issues of those who are the fall-out of an era of rampant profiteering and globalization. This is the new slippery and treacherous terrain of neocolonialism, neoliberalism and globalization which requires an extraordinary and ongoing resistance that surprises, destabilizes, occupies and outplays the system at its own game.

In an epoch that presents the disenfranchised black youth with a complex and perfidious social/political/ideological web that keeps them locked in a space of transience and uncertainty protest becomes about the will to survive. It is about both navigating and deconstructing a well-spun web of lies and half truths that aim to rob the black youth of their revolutionary fervor through multiple methods such as keeping them stuck in a continuous dehumanising and exhausting struggle for survival; denying them access to radical ‘black-positive’ political education; and making sure they are perpetually oppressed through the deployment of brutal state violence when they collectively rise up to claim their rights.

Coupled with this is the glass ceiling effect of a former generation of “social democratic” or “liberal” gatekeepers who have sold out and now suffer from what writers Hardt and Negri have termed “extremism of the center”. These ex politicos are currently complicit with the corporate and ruling political elites in one way or another, having benefited from a so-called ‘liberation movement’ which has offered up a bourgeois democracy that works against the poor. They have become the willing purveyors of neoliberalism though they deny this and speak down to the youth in paternal terms that aim to sound progressive.

In a global neoliberal reality that has stripped the youth of their prospects for job security, economic mobility, social justice and adequate state welfare, black youth in South Africa have to dig deep to find ways to be heard and to effectively push against the rampant capitalism that squeezes them from the top down, in order to work towards dismantling, in its entirety, an economic order that has rendered them futureless. The Nelson Mandela dream has failed them and neocolonialism has kept the majority of blacks as the underclass in a country that is rightfully theirs. This has squeezed the black youth to the bottom of the pile with few prospects of accessing the normalcy they were promised in the slick social cohesion non-racism advertorial, which, it turns out, is no more than the opiate of the middle classes.

This social landscape has become untenable and the lid is well and truly off … and now that it is off there is no stopping the heights of creativity and innovation in the type of disruptive protest that the youth will engage in – a robust unsettling civil disobedience that screams and rails and smashes against the obdurate walls of Babylon.

#‎RhodesMustFall the authentic ‪#‎FeesMustFall , ‪#‎FuckWhites and ‪#‎Shackville as well as many community protest such as ‪#‎TheShitWars – are intensely vivid and poignant interventions into, and disruptions of,  the current status quo and symbolic of a powerful new wave and genre of protest and resistance – laden with symbolism and militant defiance.