By Gillian Schutte
This week has seen the explosion of student protests around South Africa in defiance of the exorbitant proposed fee hikes at all universities. Students argued that these fee hikes added further pressure on economically marginalised people who already struggle under the burden of high fees. Some called it back door apartheid in a white supremacist system that seeks to purge the poor and the black from their structures. This, they feel, is nothing more than the structural violence that they are up against daily in a system that undervalues the black and poor collective.
National shut down of all universities and ongoing protests prompted many to draw a link to the 1976 uprisings when black students protested in a national defiance campaign against the use of Afrikaans as the official teaching medium. This was a resistance movement led by school pupils and when they openly protested in the streets they were met with the brute force of the state police when hundreds of school children were shot with live ammunition. Tragically, many died and thousands of children were jailed by the apartheid system.
Some thirty years later a similar violent phenomenon is unfolding on our social landscape as protesting students are being shot at with rubber bullets and stun grenades, creating mayhem and chaos in what were planned as peaceful protests. Despite this state aggression, as in 1976, students remained resilient and on Friday, after the mass march to Union Building which gathered thousands of students (joined by some parents and workers) together in the Union Gardens, President Jacob Zuma announced the dropping of the fee hikes.
There is one noticeable difference to 1976 though – and that is the appearance of more than a few white bodies in this protest, as a minuscule though noticeable number of white students and academics have joined this struggle in solidarity with black students. Some have even volunteered to become human shields to protect black students from police violence.
As a result of this action, a photograph of white students and academics forming a protective human chain on the front lines of protesting black youths, is doing the rounds internationally and has drawn admiring platitudes from many people around the globe. These white protectors have been congratulated for their bravery, sacrifice and good spirit on social and mainstream media platforms.
For all intents and purposes it is a heartwarming sight. It is brave and exemplary behavior from youth who are not usually exposed to this level of violence. Except that it is not a heartwarming situation. Rather it is an ominous and disquieting truth that turns this heart-gratifying picture into a portrait of violence. When deconstructed critically, what many have experienced as a feel-good moment soon morphs into an image that speaks volumes about the normalisation of the racist pathology that persists in this country. It exposes the truth that white privilege remains the very fabric of this society.
Through this lens one comprehends the obdurate nature of the structural racism that black students are still up against in a country that is rightfully theirs yet continues to ‘belong’ to the white minority (largely). This ‘heartening image’ also speaks loudly of the lack of value that is placed on black body, incongruously, by a state that is headed by black leaders. It sheds light on the ongoing vulnerability of being black in South Africa. It uncovers the easy use of violence directed at black people by an anti-black system.
We do not hear explicit shock or outrage at the injustice reflected back to us in a picture of black students surrounded by white privileged bodies. Rather we hear about the niceness of these whites. This stock response speaks of a much deeper malaise that passes us by unnoticed – the unconscious normalisation of racialised class ‘difference’ in South African society. What this photograph throws light on is the implicit dichotomy between white value/rationality and black primivitism that still lurks in the imaginary of a racist society. This is the phenomenon of both white racism and internalised oppression – the inevitable dis-ease of settler societies. It tells us that white privilege persists in South Africa and that it is dependent on the devaluation of ‘non-whites’.
Where else does one witness this devaluation of blackness so regularly and aggressively than in our so-called non-racist democracy?
This photograph provides the archetypal imagery that feeds the white imaginary about what it means to be a good person – a person who has transcended race differences, who does not see colour as a barrier and has embraced black struggle. It reassures whites that they are on the right path and relieves them of the anxiety of white guilt.
Except that it is not as easy as that. To dare to understand this image semantically plunges all ‘good white thoughts’ into the depths of reflection where one realises that this is mere delusion. In this realm it becomes clear that what those protective white bodies do in this image, is reinscribe the pathology of systemic racism. These bodies are in the front only because they have white skin. Because they have white skin they are assured that the police will not violate their rights. This is because they are not the underclass. They are not black. In fact they are not anything but human. Conversely black body is perceived in the whitist mindset as ‘not as human’. Black body is raced. It is wholly ‘different’ to the natural state of being white and valued.
The appalling reality that white students lined up in front of black students guarantees that the police will not open fire should shock us as much as a sighting of one thousand UFO’s. But it does not. Instead we ooh and aah over the nice white students who put themselves in danger as if this is proof of our unity. But the truth is that this is only proof of our disunity and the systemic racial hierarchy that is deeply ingrained in our lived experience. No amount of forced rainbowism via nation building and social cohesion will never overcome this reality. We do not, and probably never will, have a unified national identity – at least not while white privilege persists.
Much as those white students are to be lauded for stepping outside of their comfort zones and joining the struggle by heeding the call from black students to act as human shields – they did it knowing that they would be safe from violence. Black students on the other hand, enter this terrain knowing that their bodies are devalued, that they will be shot at, violated and oppressed.
In the end the photograph has nothing to do with white heroism – it has everything to do with the system. The abhorrent reality is, that we live in a system that claims to be democratic and yet violates the democratic rights of students to protest – just like it denied the Marikana Miners the right to Strike. The repugnant truth that we live in a country where the police force will easily open up fire on black students but will cease fire when white bodies are lined up in front of them, cannot be acceptable. This applies particularly to students from ‘black universities’ where the force of violence used against them reflects the lack of respect this state has for economically marginalised black people as it become apparent that they are treated with much more brutality than students from middle class institutions.
While we are in awe of and support all the students that are participating in this uprising, we can also be sure that the white students involved can pack their privilege back in their knapsacks (to use race theorist’ Peggy Macintosh’s analogy) after a rally and return home to a cooked meal, a comfortable bed, a hot bath and an economically sound support system. Most of the black students cannot. Many return to an RDP home, a shack or an overcrowded room. Some will be lucky to eat anything more than bread. Some will only eat every second day and sneak into unused lecture halls or libraries to sleep. Those who are not wealthy or middle class do not even know if they will finish their degrees because they simply cannot access the money to pay high fees.
The lived experience of being black and middle class or black and poor is very different to the lived experience of the average white student and to make white heroism an exceptional theme in this struggle is to misrepresent the majority of students who drive this mass action. Whiteness is most often rendered invisible as the backdrop of meaning in mainstream reportage of crime and corruption in this country – yet it becomes hyper-visible when involved in a positive act. This is what is playing out around this photograph. Though we have seen white students being arrested, this is not the same as being openly shot at with rubber bullets, and sometimes even live ammunition.
Just as the students turned away DA’s Mmusi Maimane and celebrities AKA and Simpiwe Dana, resolute that neither party politics nor celebrity culture will detract from their struggle, so should they guard against the manistream media’s propensity to grab these heroic acts of whites and make this center stage, ultimately detracting from the real issue of class, race and education injustices meted out by the state, the universities and the business sector against black body.
The true heroes in this story are the black youth who go onto those front lines with the knowledge that they will be shot at, that their rights will be violated and that their bodies have little value in a whitist neoliberal system. That takes immense bravery and relies on a resilience that whites will never have to draw upon in the South African landscape because they will never experience this same reality.