South African Universities are in a bit of a crisis at the moment. But exactly how deep the crisis is, might depend on where you get your information from.

Yesterday I was fortunate to be part of a small group of people from a number of different churches who went to the University of Cape Town as a Peace Witness team. Our role was simply to observe what was going on and to be a presence that would hopefully be a calming influence to what is a volatile and tense situation.

One thing that I was reminded of as we were leaving, was that the story we experienced was very different to the story the media was telling.

Read about current University protests in a newspaper or watch a tv news bulletin and you get a story.

Spend some time on one of the trending hashtags such as #UCTShutdown  or #FeesMustFall on Twitter and you will get a completely different story.

Spend some time at the actual University and you may find yourself a little closer to the real story

Take time to engage

It is disappointing to see a number of people – and if we’re completely honest, they tend to be white people – respond to things like the student protests by dismissing them.

When faeces are being thrown at statues. When paintings are being ripped off the walls and burned or when other acts of destruction and violence become part of the protest, it can be a lot easier to dismiss rather than to engage. The problem with that is; when being dismissive is your starting point, there is a strong possibility that you will be missing something.

As with many things in life, I believe it is possible to not condone some of the destructive acts that have happened on the campuses, while at the same time engaging with the people involved and trying to understand what got them to the point of destruction.

I found this article by Jane Duncan, entitled “Why student protests in South Africa have turned violent’ , to be very helpful and informative in terms of understanding some of the possible journey towards that type of protest:

The sad reality is that the authorities often ignore peaceful, non-disruptive protests. Outside the university context, civic organisations like Abahlali base Mjondolo have engaged in road blockades because their more conventional protests were ignored.

Ask before declaring

As I mentioned, what was most helpful to me, was being able to go to the local university and spend some time with students. To listen to their speeches, watching their behaviour and observing the way that the university, local police and hired private security behaved made all the difference.

While not everyone can physically go to the universities, I encourage you to speak to some students (not just the ones who look like you and might think like you) and follow the Twitter feed (which tends to give a more balanced overview as different voices are compiling it, plus you get photos and videos too) so that you can try to get a more accurate view of what is happening.

I think another key factor in this whole conversation is dissecting our understandings of what constitutes ‘violence’ – we see a painting burning and call that ‘violence’ but a young person unable to finish his studies because of exorbitant fees is not. My friend Ashley Visagie expressed it really well:

“I think violence has been oversimplified in this discussion. Perhaps it is useful to step back and ask what exactly constitutes violence? Is it burning a building? Is it putting faeces in Cecil John Rhodes’ face (at least a sculpture of his face)? Or is inequality a form of violence exerted upon the poor by the rich who strive to uphold the the system of injustices that keep them in power?

How do we reconcile the existence of billionaires in a world where people die of hunger and starvation? Is that not violence? How do we justify the fact that some people attend schooling for R200k per annum IN SA when others attend a school where a child has died falling into a pit toilet? Is that not violence? – no student chooses violence as a first option – heck it must take a lot of courage to stand unarmed with no riot protection gear on the frontlines and have a police officer throw a flash bang toward your face…I don’t believe people do that for the heck of it….is that not violence? Denying someone an education and then requiring the same education in the labour market…is that not violence?

Unfortunately we live in a society where those with power and influence don’t WANT to listen and they have enough money to ignore it and enough police and armed response forces to not need to until things get out of control. So when a student says they will make things ungovernable, I guess they’re saying they want to create the conditions necessary for the powerful to actually listen for understanding. Let’s not continue to oversimply violence.”

This is such a significant time in South Africa and how these University disputes are resolved will influence how the nation progresses. We cannot simply dismiss the whole thing because we haven’t taken the time to really try to understand what is going on.

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