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South African students have much to teach those who ignore injustice

University students use a mattress as a shield against rubber bullets. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

In his seminal 1970 work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire wrote:

The students … never discover that they educate the teacher.

In the past year and a half, I have worked closely with students from the University of Cape Town (UCT). I have been following two students in particular for my ongoing research about decolonising universities and through them I have met other students. They have all taught me a great deal.

With all the images of violence on South Africa’s campuses emerging on social media I could no longer distance myself from what was happening. So on October 24 and 25 I went onto UCT’s campus as an observer. Even though I was scared to confront police and private security, I was not afraid of the students.

As Freire suggested, I learnt much through my interactions with students. I’ve come to understand social movements with flat structures that “put the last first”, aligning with workers to end the practise of outsourcing. Social justice is not a phrase for these students. It is something that defines them.

Students under fire

I was among four observers on campus during that time. Usually observers are paired, and on the first day I received a bib and was partnered with a British woman trained as a Peace Justice Witness under the auspices of the South African Christian Leadership Initiative. We left UCT to go to one of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s residences, which is not on its main campus.

When we arrived, students were holding up mattresses to protect themselves from rubber bullets. I approached a policeman to find out if he was scared. This is my usual question: a projection of my own fears around violence but also as a strategy to unhinge petty power. I could not get to the students because they were literally caged in by a gate that served to protect them from police storming into the residence.

The policeman said he was not scared – instead, he was prepared. At this point my British partner called me over and said that, according to the organisation’s rules, I was not to speak to anyone. I found this problematic and prescriptive, but returned to my vantage point of observing.

At this point, the police backed off. Mediators from the Right2Know campaign and the university’s Student Representative Council arrived and were negotiating with the students. Some residence workers ventured out, telling us about students inside who were hungry and injured. I was told about one student who’d been shot five times; one rubber bullet scarcely missed his eye and hit him on his temple.

Police gather outside a student residence in Cape Town. Nadira Omarjee

Cogs in the machine

Though I never felt afraid of the students there were moments when I felt incredibly threatened by private security with their armour of rubber bullets, batons and piercing glares.

Before beginning my work as an observer I attended a lecture about decolonising science, organised by the students. There I approached a white man working as a private security guard and asked him my standard question: are you scared? Surprisingly, he said yes – but added that with 25 years of experience in the field, he’d learned not to show his fear. Another guard ordered his colleague to stop talking to me.

I persevered, asking the first guard whether he’d served outside South Africa. He nodded indicating that he had worked outside the country.

The guards currently stationed at university campuses come from a range of backgrounds. Some served in the apartheid era South African Defence Force and now work as guns for hire in places like the Middle East or Nigeria.

Speaking to private security guards, I was painfully aware of my own traumas growing up during apartheid. My own brown skin was to my disadvantage. For me, these guards are just cogs in the machine. Who they shoot is a matter of business. Their task is to protect university management and property.


My second day found me in a slightly different position. I served as an academic monitor with a white male counterpart who gave me more insight into some of the violence. He encouraged me to chat to a particular student who was arrested for assaulting a private security guard.

I was shocked to be confronted by a petite young woman instead of the sort of violent thug the student protesters are portrayed as in the media. These ways of naming student protesters as hooligans and thugs are dehumanising. Their sole purpose is to criminalise students and prepare the scene for an onslaught of violence.

This is not to say that students are non-violent. But from my observations, the only violence I witnessed was from police and the threat of violence by both police and private security. I was, however, challenged by a student when I served as a Peace Justice Witness observer. He was agitated by the arrests of students and demanded that I go to the police station and secure their release. Failing that, he insisted, I too should be arrested. He was soon reprimanded by another student.

Social justice defines these students

My generation has become complicit in middle-class morality, worried about securing our contracts in corporatised universities and ensuring that our empty consumerism is fed. We have become slaves to the system without challenging or finding alternate ways to resist neoliberalism. We have dropped the ball.

It is the students with their shutdowns and their youthful energy armed with songs and dance who are demanding a better tomorrow for our children. Those very same police and private security who hit back with rubber bullets and batons will all benefit once the system shifts towards social welfare with free decolonised education as a public good.

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