Across this nation, universities burn. On Wednesday afternoon, at the University of Witwatersrand, a new movement was (still)born: #WitsPeaceAccord. It included amongst its luminaries our beloved former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela.
Say this about former public protector Thuli Madonsela: she can pull a crowd. And by crowd, I mean CROWD—the brand of pale intelligentsia that have until now been conspicuously absent from #FeesMustFall protests, but were at this moment jammed into Braamfontein’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church, brows creased in uniform concern. Upon their lapels, big white buttons that proclaimed “Win The Peace.” Alongside them were a gaggle of Fallists, some of whom were also wearing the black-on-white entreaties.
Win what peace, no one seemed to be asking.
Anyway. New day, new movement, new hashtag: South Africa has now whelped something called #WitsPeaceAccord. The mass meeting was apparently called by The Academic Staff Association of Wits University (ASAWU), who had fallen somewhat out of love with the institution at which they were employed. Their guest list including Ms Madonsela Herself, former Cosatu General Secretary, Jay Naidoo, and Father Graham Pugin, who last week became world famous after taking a rubber bullet to the kisser, courtesy of an irreligious member of the SAPS.
The VIP section was something to behold—we’re talking capital “L” Liberals of the blue chip variety. The CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang, showed up. Men with booming laughs in Anglican clobber showed up. And—drum roll!— even the Vice Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, showed up. As the church shook with struggle songs, Father Pugin quieted the faithful. He has a talent for drama, does the padre, and he spread his arms in his white ceremonial gown as if Martin Scorsese was directing a swooping crane shot.
“The church is a safe and sacred space, one that I have been prepared to defend with my life,” he said. He asked for a moment of silence.
He did not receive one.
Professor Vishwas Satgar was next up, reminding us that this was our Arab Spring, our seminal post-94 revolutionary moment. “We are today because too many rubber bullets have been fired.” But nor did he get particularly far with his disquisition before a disturbance pulled him from the lectern.
Up from the pews stormed student leader, Vuyani Pambo, wearing an EFF cap, trailing fury. “Why must we sit in a meeting with Adam Habib?” he roared. “We will never forgive you. I don't know how you pray here. You are a very cruel man. I hate you.”
Q: Does a fee fall in the forest if there aren’t 6 million cameras present?
The lights were trained on Habib as Pambo demanded that the VC leave, or that the students leave until the VC left, or some mash-up of the two—the Catholic iconography was beginning to distract me from my note-taking. Or perhaps it was because the church had become tight with rage, a tinderbox waiting for a match, as it were.
“Habib is sitting here while Mcebo is on his way to Sun City,” spat Pambo, referring to Mcebo Dlamini, the arrested FMF leader who was the previous day mysteriously denied bail after being nabbed in a residence last Sunday night.
“The trap is that we harm Habib,” continued Pambo, urging the 300 or so Fallists to exhibit restraint as Habib passed them by. “When we get outside, then he must leave this place.”
Father Pugin stood with his hands spread, in a pose that could only be described as Christ-like.
Prof Satgar tried again. “The violence has been threatening to destroy a beautiful movement,” he said. “And so we decided to have this moment to decide on peace.” He spoke about experiencing the violence of apartheid, and he began weeping. “The violence will destroy all of us.”
This Fees thing, it occurred to me, is killing people from the inside as much it is from the outside.
Next up was Jay Naidoo, who was hoping to offer his experience as an organiser, a mediator, and as someone who has walked through the mire and emerged wearing decent shoes. He got only a few minutes into his speech before the whole thing went properly sideways. The student leaders demanded that the meeting shift from the church to Solomon Mahlangu House, where there was enough space for everyone to clamber in and share their grievances.
But Solomon Mahlangu House, AKA the Great Hall, faces down on a row of armoured cars and heavily armed cops, and is anyway subject to a 22:00 curfew—because “curfew” and “university” have always gone hand in hand in Mzansi.
So it seemed that in the quest for peace, the Accordions had set the stage for war.
Said Pugin: “I'm sorry that the sacredness of this space has been violated today. May God be with each one of you.”
Yeah, thanks for that.
Did I mention that Thuli Madonsela had yet to show up?
* * *
Hundreds of people streamed towards the East Campus’s core, a crowd that very much did not include university management. In the heat of the Great Hall's atrium, I spoke with Vuyani Pambo, the tall rangy EFF/FMF leader who related to me the experience of seeing Dlamini in his cell.
“We are traumatised,” he said.
South Africans are addicted to three things: celebrities, the stupid shit people say on social media, and charismatic alpha males. Dlamini, to his enormous advantage, is a combination of all three. The errant Dlamini has become a flashpoint, a rallying cry, explained Pambo. “So seeing Habib was discombobulating,” he continued. “Even myself, I felt anger towards him that I almost couldn't control. That's why we wanted to make sure we got him out of the church, and that the headlines tomorrow didn't say we beat him up. Because there are agents provocateurs who want that sort of thing.”
But could this peace accord stuff lead to, well, a peace accord?
“We want to make our pain heard,” said Pambo. “We will hear from the students, we'll hear from black academics and staff, and then we’ll hear what they”—by which he meant the Peace Accordions—“have to say.”
I asked Prof Satgar if he felt things were going according to plan. “Ah, we were anticipating this,” he said, waving a resigned hand at the raucous gathering that had now stuffed itself into Solomon House’s grim Brutalist corners. “We were willing to take the risk to talk about peace. So it's not a big deal. They’re willing to have a conversation, and we're willing to do it. It's the start—but we have no big ambitions.'
There were now about 1500 hombres gathered in the atrium, three levels deep, fluorescent light pooling on the proceedings. The #WitsPeaceAccords crew asked for a chat. And they got one.
In waltzed former Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who said there can only be peace once arrested students have been released. “Then dialogue can begin to chart a way forward.”
As if by magic, Thuli Madonsela materialised. People cheered, and she offered her tight lawyerly smile. She said that the struggle for free education was legitimate. She thanked students for continuing to raise issues in a society where some of those who fought for freedom are living well while others are struggling. Citing cases of financially excluded students, Madonsela said we that we didn’t need to discuss fees falling, but how and when.
“We need to rethink the methods because we don't want any of you harmed,” she intoned. “We don't want any of you not to complete your education. I believe we have to bring government on board. You have to indicate to government this is what we're demanding, this is what we'll settle for.”
She said that the police have become a buffer between the people and government, and that students need to find a peaceful way past the situation to reach the state.
Pambo then questioned whether the older leaders were committed to their cause and challenged them to stand with students as they aimed to defy the Wits curfew and face police waiting outside Solomon Mahlangu House.
Then came activist and Fallist Khaya Sithole, one of the driving forces behind the movement. (Watch Sithole: he’s going very far.)
“The problem is the government you voted into power,” he said. “We have our parents here. But if they aren't here to back us, then we have a problem. This defiance campaign belongs to us. They cannot dictate to us. For 15 years, you did nothing. Don't interrupt us.”
Well yeah, but the problem is the government. And with all the yacking—with all the copious unstoppable outpouring of wordsing—there was no government representative present at these peace accords, and therefore no one who could actually do a thing about fees and the falling thereof. It's like all of this was happening in a Worhol-esque art film in which a single self-righteous speech is endlessly looped, creating an echo chamber that inspires utterances of exactly the same speech, in turn looped ad infinitum.
Dialogue as it pertains to its dictionary definition? There wasn't even the slightest mouse-like mincing towards a solution. Kicking Adam Habib and army of Congolese robocops in the nuts would have to suffice.
As for the #WitsPeaceAccord hyper-libs, all of whom float so far above the sewerage of government that they might as well dwell with the angels? What was their objective? Would Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa take Madonsela’s call? Happily. But it would be a short conversation, because she has zero pull. None of the Peace Accordions have cultivated the ear of government, which happens to be the very first element in the art of influence.
What were they doing here? What did they genuinely expect to achieve? In a situation so incredibly dangerous as this one, they seemed to believe that their good intentions and presence somehow trumped the science of real-politick. If you’re wondering why less than jack-shit has been achieved in the education sector since 1994, this would be a good place to start.
Meanwhile, out there in the unreal world, the markets couldn’t care less. The rand is strong, despite our president’s best intentions to tank it, and our bonds sell to hungry investors who believe the Rainbow Nation will keep spewing cheery Mandela t-shirts forever. This is an Arab Spring? Friends, not a single government functionary has been castigated, so much as shot. Yes, more money has sort of been pumped into higher education. And yes, institutions of higher learning will soon hire a black lecturer or two, and stock K. Sello Duicker in the libraries. But this may well be at the expense of a larger conversation about a properly African cradle-to-grave education programme.
Surely this war goes to the government, or it goes nowhere?
“Look, we want engagement,” student leader, Fasiha Hassan, told me. “We want to take this to the government, and we should have done so in the first week. But Habib acted as a buffer. That’s one of the big problems. And that’s why we need to keep fighting here, on campus, reclaiming our spaces.”
Meanwhile, “We are disappointed that people felt that we should exit the peace meeting even after we had been invited to attend it,” said Professor Habib, in a statement. “We remain committed to working with students and student leaders in trying to find solutions to these issues, many of which can only be resolved at the national level. We recognise that passions are inflamed and that we should not take the reactions of some student leaders personally.”
And so everyone simply waited for the curfew to begin, and for the clashes to begin with them.
By some miracle—Father Pugin, is that you?—a student has yet to die in a fight with police or private security. If this continues, such an outcome is inevitable. There is no peace to win—what an absurd notion.
There is only a war to lose. We’re losing it well.