Sembene Ousmane’s harrowing novel God’s Bits of Wood has been on my mind a lot lately. It explores the political dynamics underpinning the 1947 railway workers’ strike in Dakar, Senegal.
The novel’s potency lies in more than its analysis of the workers’ oppression. Ousmane crafts an intersectional examination of the strike’s socioeconomic implications. He weaves his plot cleverly around the themes of gender and sexual relations as well as the dismantling of patriarchal arrogance and complacency. All of this means that you can’t read the novel from a single perspective.
This is not a book review. But the intersectional dynamics Ousmane examines in God’s Bits of Wood have taken on a corporeal form for me during the protests nicknamed #FeesMustFall. The book offers an important way of explaining something about these protests, which I have taken part in every day for the past 13 days and counting.
No single issue protest here
Our protest is not just about “one thing”, even if that ubiquitous hashtag suggests otherwise. It is inherently intersectional, spanning various yet interrelated sociopolitical and economic issues.
It is, firstly, about access to equal and quality education. It is about teasing out the ever-so-confusing intricacies of class relations in post-apartheid South Africa. It is about eradicating the painful exclusions and daily micro aggressions which go hand-in-hand with institutional racism within these spaces.
And it is also about laying bare the failures of the heterosexual, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist values which have become so characteristic of the country’s universities.
These may seem like disparate ideological positions. They aren’t. They all address the conditions of structural disenfranchisement under which many non-white and non-privileged students and outsourced workers languish on a daily basis in these institutions. The #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch, and #FeesMustFall student movements, to name just a few among countless others throughout the country, have all been galvanised by the need for access to those opportunities through which we can improve our lives and those of our loved ones.
Education for liberation
Contrary to what some people have opined, education is a human right. It says so in the Freedom Charter, a document adopted in 1955 by the South African Congress Alliance to outline liberation movements’ core principles.
The Freedom Charter is bandied around at the convenience of the governing African National Congress (ANC) during election season. Long before it was in government, the ANC’s thinkers and leaders believed passionately in the role of education. In Lebogang Rasethaba’s documentary Prisoner 46764: The Untold Legacy of Andrew Mlangeni, ANC stalwart Mlangeni emphasises that the ultimate outcome of education is liberation.
That is precisely why we have been marching, singing, occupying and rebelling against the hateful policies and processes that continue to exclude thousands of non-white and non-privileged youth from so many institutions of higher learning in this country. We seek and demand liberation from poverty, racism, classism, sexism, and patriarchy because these are the very techniques of power which keep our people in continual debt and economic enslavement.
We are fully aware that education is our sharpest, most effective tool through which we will achieve that liberation.
Over the past two weeks I have witnessed an incredible rise in solidarity and a single-minded focus on that liberation. Students, workers and academics throughout the country have set aside petty squabbles and ideological differences in its name. I have witnessed the skillful distribution of scant resources – food, sanitary towels, medication, legal aid – in the name of that liberation.
I have witnessed strangers pouring milk and water into students’ teargassed eyes in the name of that liberation. I have witnessed fellow comrades studying on cold, concrete floors in the name of that liberation. I have also witnessed students cleaning their own toilets, corridors and lawns for that very liberation.
And I have watched South Africa come to a standstill, peel off the rainbow-coloured bandage, and take a deep look into its festering abscesses so that we may, hopefully, address what we mean and what is stake when we talk about liberation.
These are a few of the aspects in the #FeesMustFall movement which will not gain any traction in the mainstream media. Blood, tears and images of marauding crowds make headlines. The dissolution of structural racism and disenfranchisement do not. But I shall set aside those misrepresentations of “violence” and vandalism for a moment so that I can make this clear: while the offer for 0% fee increase in 2016 is a hard-won and very welcome gain, it only marks the beginning of our fight for free, equal and quality education.
This fight, mind you, is neither, destructive nor divisive. It is a fight that is geared towards ensuring that we too can liberate and empower ourselves – and those around us – through education.