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Education as Change

On-line version ISSN 1947-9417
Print version ISSN 1682-3206

Educ. as change vol.22 n.1 Pretoria  2018

 

 

PAST: Do you remember the time when the statue of Swart was wrapped in pink plastic? It was part of the art project called "Plastic Histories" (Figure 2). The intention was to get the public to evaluate public monuments in their historical context and revalue them from alternative perspectives and furthermore, to acknowledge the contribution of women from all races, communities and sexual orientations to the grand narrative of a post-apartheid South Africa.

 

 

Daisy remembers it well. It was perhaps the first time she even noticed the Swart statue. Now everyone is watching him, wondering about his future. Just yesterday Rhodes was taken down at UCT. Rhodes did fall, but will Swart fall too? Her thoughts are interrupted by a youthful voice behind her.

School girl: Excuse me Miss, can I ask your opinion? I am doing a school project about the vandalising of statues and I was hoping you would give me your opinion ...

She looks around to see a girl of around fourteen in school uniform. She is armed with a clipboard and friendly smile. As Daisy tries to answer the girl's question she notices a group of black female UFS students who have gathered around the Swart statue. They take out their smartphones and start taking selfies with the solid block of the Swart statue. One student is sitting on his lap, kissing his cheek, and putting her arms around his neck, while others snap away, pulling faces and laughing. They are obviously mocking Swart.

Daisy: Maybe you should ask the students' opinion rather than mine.

The girl looks uncertain, her big eyes a little fearful. She turns and walks away from Daisy and the students. Her ponytail swinging cheerfully behind her.

*

It is towards the end of 2015 and the #FeesMustFall movement is sweeping through the South African higher education landscape. Daisy is having a cup of coffee with Alice, Mick, and Celine.

Daisy: How was your class?

Alice: Mostly the students just wanted to talk about this #FeesMustFall thing.

Daisy: I can imagine. What are they saying? And what do you think about everything that's been happening?

Alice: Look I do agree with the whole thing about the fees, because I do believe higher education should be accessible to students who have the potential . because there are many students out there who might not have ... who can't come because they can't afford it, they don't have access to this space, but I also think that I was disappointed with the whole thing . it became like a black people's fight and students' fight ... like people were saying "these students shouldn't be ..." You know? And not realising that it in fact influences every one of us ...

Daisy: You mean white people were saying that ... ?

Alice: Ja, and like my tutor saying she thinks it's quite pathetic and I said to her well it's easy to speak if you come from this position of privilege and it's a bit more difficult for somebody who doesn't-and have to try and get into this space ... I mean we can't deny the fact that even though democracy is here it doesn't necessarily mean that racism has gone, and how we see and engage with one another . uhm, but I must say even when the students were talking about, you know with the #FeesMustFall thing, and the students were talking and they were saying that-the black students in particular were saying-that the lecturers were not there, they were not visible really I mean ... I mean I went on the Thursday afternoon and then I went on Friday and there was nothing happening, it was over, but we should have been there from the beginning to show that this is also our concern.

Celine: ... I think they want things for free, they are not willing to work hard. I am not against, you know, free education, because I saw how my own mother struggled, based on my fees, but I think there should be ... also be a sense of accountability. 'Cause when they wanted to strike here I said to them, before anything I am an employee of the university . my opinion at this point does not count, because the university pays me . and then you know I was seen as a traitor, like "You should be supporting us," and I said "Who said I am not supporting you? It is just that my first and foremost obligation is to the university and what I think of what you are doing is irrelevant." You know? ... For me it is also the group that came here to strike, some of them are just in it for their own egos ... like one guy I know him, he did not pass his first semester and he had a bursary and he lost that bursary. So why didn't he study to keep that bursary? And now here he is striking for free education?!

Mick: Hhm, but I think you must see the bigger picture here, look past the individual students ... first we had #RhodesMustFall ... and then #FeesMustFall ... I was excited for #FeesMustFall, I was, I was really ... and I was there protesting with the students 'cause I felt that students were standing up for an injustice and I knew so many students who started with me and just did one year and then could never finish ... I was also slightly worried or disturbed at the fact that what I saw from our university there was very little support of #FeesMustFall from white Afrikaans students . and then it went to social media and some people were very vocal about it must stop . these "hooligans" must stop . and so it brought out a whole lot of this .

Daisy: Why do you think the white students were absent from that space?

Mick: I think one of the reasons is possibly because some of them they are not affected by it because the parents can be able to afford fees . the other one is . uhm . protesting is something that is seen probably as disruptive ... hooliganish . and so it is portrayed in that sense and it is probably something people want to distance themselves from . but I think most of it is being sheltered so much that you just can't identify with other people, 'cause I think if they truly did understand the pain and the suffering that goes on . I think those students were the ones who did support, because if you can't identify with what the struggle is you can't be there in solidarity.

*

FUTURE:

Outsourcing must end Violent clash at Shimla Park Campus shutdown Anger boiling over

Spilling onto the green lawn

Racial tension

Sticks

Spray paint

Running

Fear

Police! Police! Police!

...

Early morning quiet autunm air

strolling past the same spot Daisy stops

where CR Swart is lying

motionless in the pond

Staring up at the crisp Bloemfontein blue

Dry leaves rustle in the trees

Shhhh

The stone slab where he used to rest

Still erect

like a grave stone

 

 

Someone is painting over the fresh graffiti on a nearby wall SOBUKWE LAW

SCHOOL is slowly disappearing

Under a new coat of paint

Renaming

Erasing

Claiming

April 2016 Daisy strolls past the place where Swart used to be. "Are you happy now?" (Figure 4) is chalked out in white on the stone where Swart used to rest. And the answer comes in a sunny yellow: "Yes Yes!!!" Her little baby girl is asleep against her chest and Daisy can feel the small heartbeat against her own. She is thinking about the space, and how it has changed since last year. Thinking of the conversations in chalk. She walks on. Names are imprinted on the Plane trees, on the walls, on the concrete path ... Biko, Sobukwe ... (Figures 5 and 6) The campus is suddenly "tattooed" with these names. Names that were once absent and silent. But never forgotten. Now calling loudly from beyond the grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is October 2016 and Daisy is on her way to a reading group that meets once every two weeks at the university coffee shop. Their reading for that week is Achille Mbembe's "Decolonising Knowledge and the Question of the Archive." As she walks along she downloads the PDF on her phone and starts reading: "Twenty years after freedom, we have now fully entered what looks like a negative moment. This is a moment most African postcolonial societies have experienced. Like theirs in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, ours is gray and almost murky. It lacks clarity" (Mbembe 2015, 1). ... Negative moment ... grey and murky ... lacks clarity? Her thoughts are suddenly interrupted by a voice just behind her.

TJ: Hey ma'am, how are you?

Daisy: I'm alright. Just wondering what is going to happen next. Minister Blade is making his announcement about fee increments today. Are you guys planning to strike?

TJ: You must understand we do not want to strike. But if it is anything more than 0% we will strike. You must understand, it is not what we want, it is hard work to strike. But this is our generation's struggle ... we have to get free education. We have to.

Daisy: I understand that, but surely ... where will the money come from? The university cannot give what you ask for . will the government?

TJ: Frankly that is not our problem ... where they find the money ... but this is our task. Daisy: Are we looking at a peaceful protest?

TJ: Fanon says that "Decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon ... the replacing of a certain species of men by another species of men" (Fanon 1965, 35).

Daisy: Men?

But she has lost TJ's attention. He is waving goodbye to her as he walks on to join some friends up ahead. Daisy returns her focus to Mbembe: "A negative moment is a moment when new antagonisms emerge while old ones remain unresolved" (Mbembe 2015, 2). And further: "In order to set our institutions firmly on the path of future knowledges, we need to reinvent a classroom without walls in which we are all co-learners" (Mbembe 2015, 6). She looks up from her reading. A bird is singing somewhere in a nearby tree. It is the song of FUTURE.

FUTURE:

Sobukwe is spelled out in green

Here in the graveyard of broken dreams

Revolutionary hopes

dusty disappointments

here in the cemetery of the remembrance

The past is etched out on every possible surface

The winds of change

blowing through the lane

of outlandish Plane Trees

Biko, Biko, B I K O

Biko lives

 

 

 

 

 

 

She takes pictures on her smartphone as she walks along. PAST is running after her.

PAST: Do you remember that time you were teaching the Grade 11 Art Class about South African resistance art? You were discussing a collage about the death of Steve Biko.

 

 

Daisy's memory drifts back to where she is standing in a high school classroom. Her memory smells of pencil shavings and cleaning detergent. "I hate white people! I hate white people!" a student named Veronica is shouting as she storms out of the classroom. Daisy is left with a group of wide-eyed Grade 11 learners-and a very uncomfortable silence. She feels ... lost, frustrated, blamed, guilty, angry, defeated ... tired.

*

Daisy arrives at the reading group. She is eager to contribute today. Eager to voice some of her thoughts-to write it with spray-paint on a wall or shout it through a megaphone. She feels like a pot about to boil over.

Daisy: In this article Mbembe speaks of the classroom without walls . the interesting thing is that the campus is becoming like that now. On my way here I was confronted by the names of Biko, Sobukwe and others ... I was forced to contemplate the empty space where C. R. Swart used to sit ... his absence makes him more "present" in a way. Before I could ignore him, but now I have to think about him and what he did, the choices he made, the role he played . in a way the tables are turned . the students are teaching us-look at what we have to say . here it is in your face ... we will spray-paint-spell it out for you ... BIKO, SOBUKWE ... only now do I wonder ... who was Robert Sobukwe anyway? ... Oh ... and how did he feel all those years in solitary confinement? It is like we are swimming in this sea now ... this sea of uncertainty ... re-learning . unlearning . we cannot take things for granted anymore.

Alice: We cannot do things the way we used to . We cannot teach in the ways we used to teach. We are really forced out of our comfort zones and confronted with our own complacency . our mini Oxford or Cambridge coming apart at the seams . and something else is born . but what? What next? That is what we are all trying to understand.

Mick: Mbembe says: "The university as we knew it is dead" (Mbembe 2015, 20).

Daisy: "Dead?"

The SILENCE is broken by the beep beep beep as a WhatsApp message comes through. It is a picture shared by a colleague from Rhodes University:

FUTURE:

What is born from the ashes of these flames?

From this rage?

Who will turn the page?

Celine takes Daisy's phone to look at the image of ashes and flames. She scrolls down to look at some of the other images preceding that one of a burnt down building.

Celine: You know Daisy, it's kind of funny that you only have pictures of babies and protests on your phone.

She gets to her on-campus apartment. Her little baby girl reaches out her arms to be picked up. With the baby on the hip she stands by her window. TJ and Tumi walk past. One with a megaphone and one with a sjambok.

FUTURE:

A strike is coming

That night filled with singing

Protest songs

She doesn't understand the words

But the message is clear:

Come out, come out, join our cause

In the morning WhatsApp messages come in one after the other. She is trying to feed the baby with one hand as she opens the messages. Mashed sweet potato flies everywhere. She wipes the screen of the phone to read.

There is dust in the air. No rain. Just dust and wind.

FUTURE:

Elsewhere ...

I think I want to be

Should I get out of here?

And go . where?

The campus has become a waiting place. Management is meeting with the students. Beebeebeebeebeep ... Another message, and another and another ...

 

 

 

 

She is reading the last of the messages when there is a knock on her door. A few students are gathered in her doorway, framed by the dim morning light.

Celeste: Is this true? Will all UFS campuses be closed until after the semester? Do you know if it's true? I think this is a fake message.

Daisy: The university's official communication says we are open tomorrow.

Celeste: Yes, we thought so-look "will" is spelled wrong in that message-the university won't spell "will" wrong, would they? But will the university be open tomorrow? I got a voice message that is being circulated-listen to this:

Celeste: So the message might be true?

Daisy: I really don't know.

FUTURE:

But who is writing the truth now?

Who is creating a new truth?

Our augmented reality

The "fake" message becomes TRUE

As the university will not open again until after the semester break

*

While the October 2016 protests are on-going Alice, Mick and Celine meet in Daisy's apartment for a cup of tea.

Daisy: I am struggling to sleep, because at night the students are singing outside-struggle songs I think.

Celine: Why these songs?

Daisy: And why always the men leading the song?

Mick: Go read ... educate yourself ... lyoooooooooh Solomon, commemorates the life of Solomon Mahlangu, an MK militant who died at the hands of the apartheid government at the age of 22 ... he said: "Tell my people that I love them and they must continue the fight, my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom, aluta continua." This song gives courage to each comrade in the struggle (Mati 2016) ... so it is perhaps not surprising that the men lead this song.

Alice: Remember our reading by Mbembe? He said that "[a]s Fanon intimated, they see no contradiction between wanting to topple white supremacy and being anti-racist while succumbing to the sirens of isolationism and national-chauvinism" (Mbembe 2015, 1).

Celine: And yet we are seeing a female presence in the leadership of these protests . on the news anyway. Here on campus I'm not so sure, it seems to be mostly guys leading.

Daisy: We have a lot to think about. I am learning a lot. In a way it is a very educational experience for us, but also for the students. It is interesting to see how the students are organising themselves. Taking charge, writing arguments, and counter arguments .

There is a sudden noise outside. Students running and screaming. Police running after them, catching them, arresting them. Students retaliate-throwing stones and bottles at the massive police vehicles, hippos and water cannon. She closes the door-trying to escape this battlefield. As she does this she sees Tumi and TJ run past and overhears the tail-end of a hurried conversation between them.

Tumi: This is getting serious. Are you done now?

TJ: We will never be done.

She closes the door.

Celine: What is going on outside?

Daisy: Students and police playing cat and mouse.

Mick: Why don't you go out and see for yourself Celine, come out of your splendid isolation.

Alice: Don't be ridiculous Mick, she might get a rock to the head, or she might be arrested. She looks like a student and she is black. You know they only arrest black students.

*

The next day the campus is eerily quiet and no one seems to go outside much. She sees a lone protester of small built walking with a stick. All on his own . Did he lose the group? Is he coming for a bathroom break? He looks so vulnerable. So far removed from the images playing out on her television screen, and in the newspapers. She goes off campus to Pick & Pay to do her groceries. In the que at the checkout she stands behind a middle-aged woman holding up the local Afrikaans newspaper. The front page is covered with photos of student protests sweeping the country. "These students are crazy, hey? They don't want to study. Everything is burnt down now ... I hope they are happy. What a mess!" The women is saying this out loud, sort of in her direction as if she is looking for agreement. But Daisy is looking down at the patterns on the floor.

FUTURE:

Feeling unsettled

The campus like a graveyard.

The usual cheerful sounds of students

Are gone

No one is jogging

No one is playing a friendly game of soccer No one is flirting Or laughing

Or sitting around in the sun

Everyone is inside

Posting

Checking

Fretting

Stressing

What's next?

The waiting place ...

Students marching in the night

Sometimes silent

Sometimes singing

Hear our voices

Hear our plea

In the morning she is woken by the sound of helicopters circling Students running

Police is coming

Grabbing

Catching

Arresting

In the van they go

Hearts pounding

Are these criminals?

Are they children?

Hear our voices ...

*

They are almost alone inside the campus coffee shop. Alice's friend, Emelia, is joining them today.

Daisy: No I cannot take this anymore. I am finding a new job.

Alice: Shall we just go work for private institutions? Will that make us sell-outs?

Celine: What if we don't get a pay raise? If we don't have a job in one year's time?

Mick: There is no revolution without sacrifice. You are all just thinking of yourselves.

Celine: But it is so difficult to see where this is all going. Like, what role must we play?

Emelia: In Poland we have free education. I would never have been able to study if we didn't, my parents simply didn't have such money. But free education doesn't mean you will get a job. You might have a PhD and still be serving coffee in a café, because that is all there is to do.

Daisy: In his latest article Mbembe warns about the effect that the shutdown of public universities will have on the poor. If universities become increasingly virtual, will it not disadvantage students with no internet access, or if private universities start moving in to scoop up the academics and students who can afford to pay ... "If we keep subscribing to their [public universities] repeated shutdown many will start wondering whether they are really that important. Many will realise that we can indeed close them, and nothing apparently happens. Things do not fall apart. People simply move on" (Mbembe 2015).

Alice: So I suppose the question is when it is our time to move on?

*

Leaving the coffee shop Daisy is feeling depressed. She runs into Tumi and TJ on their way back from Steers.

TJ: This campus is getting empty. Everyone is going home.

Tumi: It's getting lonely here. Almost all of our friends have gone. No one seems to think there will be classes again this year ... maybe exams ... I just hope we can finish the year.

Daisy: Where is Celeste? I haven't seen her for a few weeks now. Did she also go home?

Tumi: She left. But because of the other reason, not the protest.

Daisy: What other reason?

Tumi: She has a little package on the way.

Daisy: She is pregnant?

Tumi: Yes. Her family is very disappointed. I don't know what she was thinking ... anyway I'm just going home now, I need time to think. I've been protesting and I got so involved in that . Now I need time to think . I must go home.

TJ: I'm staying. If the university opens we will just shut it down ... Even if we have to shut it for three years; until we have free education ... If we need to implode the economy ...

With TJ's words still ringing in her ears she walks past a tree with "Mugabe" (Figure 13) written on it:

 

 

PAST: Remember the time when you were teaching an academic literacy class and you asked the students to give examples of people they regard as being intelligent and to explain why they thought so. One student gave Robert Mugabe as an example, explaining that he (Mugabe) succeeded in chasing white people from his country. Remember that?

You felt confused. Worried? Threatened? Afraid?

*

The campus is dead. There won't be classes again this year. There are no students. Only a few police officers sitting around. Looking bored. Their riot gear stacked against a nearby tree. The graffiti is being washed away, and painted over, leaving bare, scrubbed surfaces (Figure 14) like unhealed wounds all over campus.

 

 

FUTURE:

Empty spaces

Neutral spaces

Quiet spaces

Waiting spaces

*

On Facebook an old friend asks Daisy's opinion about what is going on with the fees protests. She writes:

My take on what is happening is that we are now at a point where all of us who work in higher education are forced to rethink and re-evaluate the very core of our calling. On a daily basis we are forced into more honest and open engagement with our students, our own identity in this space, and the urgent need for change which we must help establish. The unsettled and uncomfortable landscape in which we now find ourselves might be the catalyst for new and creative approaches to higher education that we so desperately need.

This is her public answer. She really believes it to be true, yet inside she feels less optimistic. She is uncertain and scared. She goes back to the spot where the story began. There is a new message now (Figure 15).

 

 

FUTURE:

CR Swart Must Fall

Didn't he fall already?

Guess not

Are you happy now?

Is washed away By rain

or human hands

Who knows?

Are we happy now?

Are we?

Are we? Daisy wonders, as she walks away over the early green summer grass, under blue Bloemfontein skies.

 

THE SO WHAT?

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