In an antagonistic relationship defined by an imbalance of power between two forces, the oppressor and the oppressed, who is illegitimate? Protests by students, workers and other oppressed classes can never be illegitimate. In any case, it is not the part of those enjoying the privileges of the status quo to decide how the oppressed should understand and deal with their reality.
Professor Adam Habib, the Vice Chancellor of Wits University, said in January when students were protesting for free registration: “This strike is conducted by only 30 people who are disrupting registration and learning and it is therefore illegitimate”. The same sentiment was sort of repeated by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) recently when the opening of its 2nd semester was halt by a students’ and workers’ protest. NMMU released a statement stating: “Staff and students are advised not to come to North & South campuses today due to protests”.
Of course these comments cannot go unchallenged. The NMMU statement was clearly attempting to criminalize the “others” who were “not” staff and students who were protesting. It did that by asking staff and students not to come to campus because of a protest, as if those conducting the protest were not students and staff. It is the old tactic of the liberal system which alienates everything and everybody outside the class bracket it was inaugurated to serve, who are the rich, the white and the male in the main.
A protest is called by those who feel the oppressive weight of a violent system unto them and obviously if this violent system was formed to serve white rich males, then in contrast the oppressed who are attempting to re-humanise themselves with the protest will be the poor, black and unprotected students and workers. In other words, the NMMU statement was saying “the human beings called students and staff that we were designed to serve must not come to campus because there are black sub-humans who have closed gates protesting for what was not made for them”.
Prof. Habib was not far from what NMMU was stating. His assertion of illegitimacy is questionable, if not a fallacy. He first plays the mathematics game of saying, because a protest is organized by 30 people, it is therefore illegitimate. Yet he is the same person who goes around saying that he was a revolutionary in his student days when he and “a few other comrades” would disrupt university classes and burn colonial buildings under apartheid. This cosmetic activism is a sentiment mentioned repeatedly by other vice chancellors, professors and archbishops who claim to have been involved in the apartheid struggle. In other words, it was legitimate, revolutionary and “an act of bravery” for them to be 5 or 12 confronting apartheid machinery but illegitimate for students in 2016 when they are now university managers.
I have always emphasized that a social movement, no matter how big or small it is, no matter whether it is successful or not, has a message that it is communicating with us and which we must pay attention to. The people participating in a protest are not stupid or causing inconvenience, as some commentators would like us to believe. Instead, people participating in a protest are intellectuals of note. They are thinking and are in pain. They articulate their oppression and agitate for their freedom. They are a group that is coming up with a theory about their condition.
If you take politics, history and context into consideration, it was suffering and a social movement that produced giants of liberation struggle like Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Chris Hani and Robert Sobukwe, to name a few. Today that theory that oppressors tried to crush is being cited to produce PhD scholars and is a source of inspiration and political education to the youth. That can never ever be illegitimate.
Now this brings me to a question that we must ask ourselves and seek to answer quickly, which is: Between an oppressed student protesting and a vice chancellor presiding over a violent system, who is illegitimate? Or rather lets bring the question closer to home and ask: Between a poor citizen protesting for service delivery and a government official presiding over a corrupt state, who is illegitimate? Or lets put it even much more easier and ask: Between a Solomon Mahlangu hanged fighting for freedom and a PW Botha presiding over the apartheid machinery, who is illegitimate? Can the oppressed ever be illegitimate? Can we honestly say that an oppressed, poor, dehumanized, excluded, black and frustrated student is illegitimate, or are they reacting from being at the painful receiving end of polished illegitimacy?
Prof Habib is running a university system that is a superstructure built in an upper class suburb which entrenches violence on anyone below the class bracket it was created to serve; and NMMU is no different. A system that places a price tag on a human right called education and operates daily on a Eurocentric and white standardized infrastructure and curriculum will always be dehumanizing to the African working class student AND African worker because they cannot relate to it. It does not speak to their norms, values and standards because it was initially not created for them. It dehumanizes them.
Denying access to education, evicting students from residence, withholding exam results of poor students, delaying the minimum wage and outsourcing of workers – all these acts are intended to hurt, damage and dehumanize the African poor and working class student and worker in the main. It is in itself a crushing, brutal and evil act of violence to innocent human beings. Who is illegitimate between innocent human beings and a violent superstructure?
Traditionally, protests in South Africa originated in the townships where a racialized class dispute engulfed a black working class against apartheid capitalism. Those protests had no formal rules and arrangements. It was purely the masses of our people organizing themselves how they wanted and expressing the true extent of their tactics and emotions. Now because these protests have moved from townships to the upper class suburbs in universities where the rich reside, suddenly there is now caution, coordination, application and control of how the black working class must protest in an “acceptable manner”. Any black protest that does not appreciate the standard set by the rich suburb is deemed “illegitimate”. It is what Sibongile Mangolothi and David Fryer accurately describe as the system telling you that “this is how you are supposed to feel the pain, you are not supposed to feel the pain this way; this is how you are supposed to define the pain and you must prove beyond reasonable doubt that you are feeling the pain”
I ask again, in an antagonistic relationship described by an imbalance of power between two forces, the oppressor and the oppressed, who is illegitimate? The assertion by Prof Habib and NMMU of an “illegitimate student protest” is a myth and is completely invalid.
* Pedro Mzileni is a BA Honours Sociology student at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, writing in his personal capacity.
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