Dear Student Movements of 1976,
(Dear ex-student behind the movement, who made personal sacrifices that affected your own future- without media coverage- while June 16 remains a beacon in our past)
I wonder about the differences that may exist between you and I. Me, a middle class student organizing protest at The University of Pretoria against an unequal education system, and commodification of quality education in 2015, and you, a student organizing protest against the violent outworking of apartheid on your education and everyday in 1976.
Could we have been friends?
This morning forty years ago was tragic and courageous and photographed. It tipped something. Whether it set out to do so is largely irrelevant, we have learnt that nothing organizes and informs a movement like violent state reaction and nothing determines its impact like media. (We had to learn it again, after you did. We have learnt a few of the lessons you did again.)
There is a nostalgia that pervades our movements. It is evident in our language, in our communities of resistance and in our methods. You are the closest point of reference we have to what we should be doing, I’m not sure that we understand the cost of your struggle. I worry that we have remembered it as more glorious than it was. This nostalgia is a version of a longed for future that finds expression in an imagined or real past. It is us groping for meaning in the midst of superficiality, for change in the midst of injustice, for a history in the midst of globalization and for a future in the midst of an oppressive present. We have felt the outline of what we are looking for, but we remain methodically inarticulate in our call.
The truth is that person for whom the call of free education (economically and philosophically) is firstly being made is not present at these protests. These protests are made of students already in tertiary institutions, who were able to attain access by whatever means. The person this protest is for is at their home in a township or rural village, the odds stacked against their minds to break through the cage and think of ‘future’ as something that belongs to them.
There is a perpetual immediacy that cages those for whom survival is constantly uncertain: an eternal present that surrounds the underclass. It distorts time: with no past and no future, where does hope fit it? Significant moments of protest in history cause this cage to open slightly. Protest is a future orientated thing. Your protest was one such moment. I think that ours could be too.
How much of your movement was about dissatisfaction with the present and how much was about a different future? How do we navigate this question when we are protesting with an absent group of more than 25% of our population? As an assertion of an alternative present, which implies an alternative future, how did your generation’s choices about how, when and what to protest for and against shape my generations present? My question is, essentially, to what extent is protest prophetic?
Your generation’s time and my generation’s time were not the same. You asserted a different future which became our present. You protested under an illegitimate, minority voted government in what called itself a democracy. We are twenty years into democracy and evidently face many of the same issues under a democratically elected government with a freedom charter that says “The people shall govern.” Yet we protest in the same way. I worry about the implications of us both asserting dissatisfaction and longing in the same way. I worry about us projecting a less just and free future than we ought to be at this stage in South Africa’s history.
Do you find the similarities in our stories as scary as I do? Will my children will be writing our movements a letter in forty years time in a similar present to now, where the people are no closer to governing their own lives and then their country?
Have we read our times correctly?
Yours in Hope
Student activist of 2015
Roanne Moodley is an undergrad student activist at the University of Pretoria and is a member of UPrising.