Caught between post-apartheid South Africa and the burgeoning rage for revolution, South African students are imagining a future that the anti-apartheid generation has yet to accept. This was at the heart of last night’s 15th annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture.
Held every year in commemoration of assassinated anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, the 2015 lecture, which had delivered a heated debate about race in South Africa, would be a tough act to follow. But the 2016 Ruth First Fellows didn’t hold back in their presentations.
Sitting in the Great Hall at the University of Witswatersrand, there were times when white people in the audience held their breath or stared wide-eyed. It happened particularly when 2016 Fellow Lwandile Fikeni spoke on rage and why black people say “fuck white people”, and when Nolwazi Tusini, also a 2016 Fellow, shared how black students in the 1980s wanted straight hair and to meet the standard of white power in order to resist oppression.
“We were all touched by the Rainbow Nation project, the 1980s cohort as its first poster children, perhaps more than others. The 1980s babies who had the opportunity to go to historically white schools were faced with the non-choice of collaborating with this project or risk rendering themselves a generation without purpose,” Tusini, 28, an executive producer at Radio 702, said.
Her research, titled “The 80s kids: A story of collaboration as disruption”, focused on black students in the 1980s who were likely the first in their families to be legally allowed to go to school in the same spaces as white children. She argues, through her experiences interviewing these black adults now in their late 20s and early 30s, that the students collaborated with a system that privileged white people because they believed they had to prove that they belonged, and they were unprepared for what it meant to be black in a space that was known as white.
Tusini’s work was a more specific look at what keynote speaker of the night, Leigh-Ann Naidoo, delivered in her bold speech on the time for a revolution and the intergenerational misunderstandings between the anti-apartheid elders and the student protesters of now.
“The spectre of revolution, of radical change, is in young peoples’ minds and politics, and it is almost nowhere in the politics of the anti-apartheid generation. In fact, even as they criticised young people just five years earlier for being apathetic and depoliticised, they have now thought student activists misguided, uninformed and mad,” Naidoo told a transfixed audience.
The postgrad student, who is doing her PhD in education at Wits, touched on what over the past year has been a tender spot in South African student politics. During the student protests, there were parents who cautioned, supported and fretted over their kids, as they faced off against riot police. There were also parents who did not support any of the protests, because South Africa is in a time of democracy.
When Nomboniso Gasa, a researcher, analyst and freelance writer, and Wanelisa Xaba, a student acitivist at the University of Cape Town, got into a heated exchange on Radio 702, where Xaba accused Gasa of being “paternalistic” which Gasa countered by saying Xaba was being “disrespectful”, and the doors to a debate on intergeneration dialogue and politics were spread wide open.
According to Naidoo, students have been more observant of what time it is in South Africa, and they are the ones insisting that radical change must happen because, despite their elders’ belief in the present democracy, vestiges of apartheid are still fixed in South African society.
“We are, to some degree, post-apartheid, but in many ways not at all. We are living in a democracy that is at the same time violently, pathologically unequal,” Naidoo said.
She praised the student movements for arresting time with protest occupations and shutdowns at universities, which led them to reshape the spaces they occupied so that, at UCT, Bremner Building became Azania House. But she cautioned that shutdowns cannot be the only way to determine how students will proceed.
All three speakers argued that black rage and violence was neither uncontrollable nor unreasonable. They argued that these are the vehicles that will build a different future.
Not everyone agreed with their views, with one audience member, political writer Ebrahim Harvey, rising to ask how destroying university property would lead to acceleration rather than regression.
Ruth First was also an activist, a researcher and an intellectual. In her introduction to the night, moderator Sisonke Msimang brought the question of why First, a white woman, is memorialised instead of a black woman activist when there are many who fought against apartheid who must be remembered.
It is just one of the many difficult questions the lectures seem to evoke.