Why are South African universities in the grip of hot violence?

Burning painting at UCT


South African universities are in the grip of hot violence. Students  occupying space, attacking property and burning paintings; policing using force and arresting students; students kicking other students. Voices are calling for violence to stop. How might we understand this violence?

It is not as if we are not aware of other daily forms of violence at South African universities, so what distinguishes what happened at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Pretoria (UP), Free State, or Stellenbosch (US) must be the directness of the violence. And this spectacular sort of violence, more any other kind is what we come to think of as violence, even for those who know what is to be hungry, live in a shack, or squat at university.

However it is a mistake, one whose consequences keeps returning in various ways, including as hot aggression, to consider  what is happening at universities worse than other forms of violence, whether indirect violence, slow violence, structural violence, or symbolic. Even though I think it is an error to choose English over Afrikaans in the language battles at UP and US,  I recognise that oppression on the basis of language is as real and painful as being called a monkey. Even though I think it is wrong to burn painting, I know what being without accommodation at varsity feels like.

Direct, physical, or subjective violence, a form of violence for which we are supposed to blame particular students, policemen, university principal or president of a country, comes to monopolise the media space precisely because it is mediatised, as the philosopher of the moment Slavoj Žižek has said, to hog our attention and demand a narrow response. A burning painting is ultimately no worse that the denial of quality education by subtle means or letting people die from starvation when there are others who throw away food.

And so there are times when having grown up in a shack leaves a wound so deep in one’s being that there are only two options, really. Fight, burn, injure till you die because you can never let another person or institution even consider of dehumanising you ever again. Or withdraw to your little miserable corner, because you have been so dehumanised you cannot even raise your hand to ask for your right to dignity.

It will be  disingenuous to interpret me as supporting the students’ violence. But it is as if there more I become part of those who have more than they need – more food, more space, more opportunities – there more and more aware that violence comes in different forms.

So, if we who are well-housed and well-fed are to be frank, all we can say is that the violence at South African universities has turned hot. And that inconveniences us. But the truth is our society is violent to poor people, to women, to black people, and to children in more ways that simply the direct ones. We can and do ignore that violence every day. The question on which we should be reflecting is, what are the reasons for this hot violence at universities like Cape Town and Pretoria, and what is the connection with other forms of violence?

According to the gender and masculinity scholar Robert Morrell of UCT , there are at least three reasons for the violence on university campuses, and masculinity is one of these. I know that men are responsible for much of the violence in the world, against women, children, other men and the world itself. However, it is becoming clearer to me that, whereas there is a space for considering men and masculinity in thinking against violence, an analysis of violence that leaves our structural or slow violence is too limited.

And oh, by the way, there is another option for those who have grown up in humiliating that I left out. That option is that action without reflection collapses into unthinking activity, just as reflection without action is just so much hot air. That option, of reflection-action-reflection-action, begins with the realisation that there will be no real decolonisation, at the level of one’s subjectivity as much as at the level of institutions, without understanding the real causes of our dehumanisation, acting to change the conditions that refuse our humanness, reflecting on our losses and gains, then acting, reflecting, on and on.




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