By Malaika wa Azania

 One would imagine that a student who is fighting for the doors of learning to be open would do everything in their power to protect spaces of learning. In our country, we are witnessing the opposite, where students fighting to access institutions of higher learning are the ones setting them on fire.

A week ago, there was an arson attempt at Rhodes University *. Early on Wednesday morning, someone set two fires at the university’s administration building that houses council chambers and the office of the vice-chancellor.

Malaika wa Azania (6)
Malaika Wa Azania

Fortunately, the fire was detected by the campus protection unit and was immediately put out. An investigation is still under way.

The attempted arson at Rhodes was not an isolated incident. Over the past few months, numerous institutions of higher learning across the country have been set alight by protesting students.

In September last year, various cars and buildings were set alight by protesting students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The following month, protesting students at the University of Fort Hare’s main campus in Alice set alight both entrances leading to the institution. This week Fort Hare students were at it again, protesting against the university’s decision to hold centenary celebrations while the needs of students are not addressed.

Also in October, students at the University of Limpopo’s Turfloop campus set a security vehicle on fire. At the University of Zululand’s KwaDlangezwa campus, protesting students set the student centre building on fire.

A few weeks later, in November, two buildings were set alight at the University of the Western Cape’s Bellville campus. In the same month, protesting students at the Tshwane University of Technology’s Soshanguve campus burned three halls, including an exam centre, and two security cars.

Shortly thereafter, the financial aid building at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology was set on fire – twice.

In February, protesting students at the North West University’s Mahikeng campus set various buildings on fire – including the science centre. In the same month, students at the University of Cape Town burned paintings and a Jammie shuttle bus. The vice-chancellor’s office was also petrol bombed. The University of the Witswatersrand also saw a lecture hall and a school bus set alight.

Less than two weeks ago, various offices and a staff house at Vaal University of Technology’s Vanderbijlpark campus were set alight. On Monday we woke up to haunting pictures of the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway campus Sanlam auditorium. It was set alight in an apparent arson attack.

The arson incidents listed above occurred in the last eight months alone and don’t include FET colleges. Were we to include incidents from the last two years, we would have institutions such as Mangosuthu University of Technology appearing on the list.

With more than 10 institutions of higher learning set alight over the last eight months, there is clear evidence that the torching of universities in our country is on an alarming increase. And we certainly must be alarmed.

The reality of the situation is that very few people can claim to genuinely support the torching and destruction of infrastructure in our country’s universities.

There is nothing as heartbreaking as the sight of university buildings going up in smoke, especially to a working class child who understands the importance of obtaining a tertiary qualification.

Many people have argued it is ironic that the same working class students who are protesting for access to universities are the ones burning them. And it is true.

One would imagine that a student who is fighting for the doors of learning to be open would do everything in their power to protect spaces of learning. In our country, we are witnessing the opposite, where students fighting to access institutions of higher learning are the ones setting them on fire.

varsity burns uct
Students burn artworks at the University of Cape Town

As a starting point, we must condemn the actions of protesting students who are burning universities. Burning a university is counter-revolutionary, because it reverses the gains of our struggle for transformation. It denies us an opportunity to make South Africa better. Money that could be used to invest in the improvement of our universities gets redirected to repairing the infrastructural damage. According to the Department of Higher Education and Training, damages amounting to more than R300 million were incurred during the #FeesMustFall protests.

This money, which could have gone towards educating more students, must now be redirected towards fixing universities.

Furthermore, the damage to universities inevitably leads to the disruption of the academic calendar.

But in our condemnation of students who set universities alight when protesting, we must not retreat from asking ourselves difficult, albeit important, questions about how we arrived here.

A year ago President Jacob Zuma said something profound in response to the issue of xenophobic violence. He argued South Africans are a violent people whose propensity for aggression (especially towards authority) is rooted in history.

For many decades, the only universal language in our country was violence. Our history is written in blood and violent conflict. One of the things that we failed to do when we became a democratic country was to deal with the brokenness that is still part of our country’s DNA.

Even in a democratic dispensation, South Africans’ language of protest is still articulated through violence.

Service delivery protests in our country are characterised by extreme violence.

South Africans have not unlearned the deep-rooted need to use violence as a tool of communication and resistance.

While the genesis of violence in our country can be traced to our colonial and apartheid past, the violence of protesting students cannot be blamed on history alone. Management in universities must also take responsibility.

Many of the universities listed above were set alight at the height of the #FeesMustFall protests (and the subsequent #EndOutsourcing protests).

Protesting students, frustrated with what they believe is the dismissive attitudes of management, resorted to a language of violence and disoberdiance.

In response, universities sought interdicts against protesting students, hired private security to “protect” campuses, increased police presence and ultimately implemented academic shutdowns. Rather than quell the violence, the actions of management only excarcebated it.

But the greatest responsibility for the torching of universities and other forms of violence must be taken by our government, which has consistently failed to provide leadership and take transformation seriously. The government’s actions (and inactions) have backed students up against the wall. Many of the issues that led to the burning of universities are historical issues which the government has no political will to resolve.

The government, if it truly wanted to, can provide free education to working class students. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, admitted this much during the #FeesMustFall protests when he said that between government and the private sector, there’s money to ensure free tertiary education.

Even the burning of universities arising from the #EndOutsourcing protests have the government’s fingerprint.

By allowing public universities to have institutional autonomy, the government is allowing these universities to commit various forms of injustices with complete impunity.

These injustices manifest in practices such as outsourcing, which perpetuate the exploitation and disenfranchisement of workers who have also been failed by a government that is failing to grow the economy and create job opportunities.

As a society that fashions a higher civilisation, we have a responsibility to reconstruct our language of protest – to unlearn the use of violence as an expression of our discontent.

[Malaika Wa Azania is a student at Rhodes University and author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation.]

*Article first published on 21 May 2016

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