We Burnt Things In The 80s But Never Schools – Themba Maseko


In most democracies, the torching of places of learning would be declared a national crisis and everyone would be up in arms. Not in South Africa. We criticise, condemn, and life goes on.

Except life doesn’t go on for the thousands of pupils in Vuwani who are not going to have a classroom or a library. There are many tertiary students who use these facilities to prepare and study. For a nation with such high unemployment and a critical shortage of skills, it’s a scandal.

Burning a lecture hall is tantamount to burning your own textbooks because you were angry with the authorities. Burning a school is destroying the future of your brother or sister, daughter or son; you are destroying your very own community.

Can anyone ever justify burning their own home because they are angry with government? It is simply inexcusable. No amount of anger or frustration can ever justify these events.

I was involved in the struggle in the ’80s and we never saw our schools as legitimate targets. Yes, we burnt lots of things – buses, delivery vans, police cars – but we always knew community assets such as schools were not targets. Yes, we made mistakes. At the height of the 1976 uprising, libraries were burnt. But that was never the object of our struggle.

School boycotts at my school, Belle Higher Primary, in Soweto, started in April 1976 when the regime introduced Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. We stopped attending school two months before the June 16 uprising because learning had become impossible. I recall having a maths lesson one day and the next day, a Mr Mfeka arrived to teach us wiskunde. The whole classroom was lost and couldn’t follow a single word he was saying. We simply stopped attending . We wanted to learn, but the apartheid regime made it impossible .

We can condemn the violence, but we should try to understand why “our people” – not “these people”, as some prefer to call them – resort to violence to express their frustrations. Here’s my attempt to understand the behaviour of our communities.

First, our communities are angry because they feel they are not being listened to when they raise their concerns. They feel no one cares and that the only time they get a response or media coverage is when they turn violent. Surely, this cannot be correct.

They stand in long queues every four years to elect their representatives and yet they feel no one listens to them. This is clearly an indictment of all public representatives. MPs, ministers and councillors must ask themselves what they are doing to serve their communities. Are they elected to “eat” or serve? In other words, we need a culture of service where the electorate comes first.

There’s no denying that inequality, poverty and unemployment create untold resentment and stress

Second, there appears to be a lack of community-based leaders who can give guidance to communities in times of extreme frustration. These leaders must live among communities to feel, understand and reflect the pulse of the person in the street. They must be skilled in anticipating people’s aspirations and frustrations and channelling community anger to the decision-makers ahead of time.

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The community of Vuwani burnt or vandalised more than 20 schools due to extreme frustration. I’m convinced that strong leadership could have steered the anger in the direction of political structures such as the ANC rather than the community feeling the only way their grievance – incorporation into a municipality – could be addressed was through burning essential community assets. Media reports that some political players were behind the burning of schools are worrying.

Third, it is highly likely that some agents provocateurs could be involved. During the struggle in the ’80s and ’90s, the ANC underground structures warned us against elements, some within our ranks, that were keen to agitate for and promote anarchic actions. These elements were always clothed in the most revolutionary colours, but their motives were designed to create chaos in order to discredit our course.

Students leave the Vaal University of Technology with their personal belongings on Thursday, May 11, 2016, after overnight vandalism and buring of buildings on the Vanderbijlpark Campus. The University told some 3500 students to leave their campus dorms on Thursday by 14H00 until further notice Image: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

This risk always exists in social movements, especially when such movements don’t have strong and visible leaders.

Although this is an important matter for consideration, we have to guard against the tendency to use this risk as an excuse for discrediting all social movements.

Fourth, in any mass protest, there’s always the possibility of criminal elements taking advantage of the “chaos”. Organisers of protests have to be aware of this risk and take steps to ensure that social movements and protest activities are not hijacked.

Fifth, it is also possible that communities and different constituencies in our society are feeling a sense of alienation. I’m talking about a feeling that although this is your government, it is not working for you and your circumstances are not improving even after you’ve stood in long queues to vote for your government.

This is easy to dismiss as rubbish, but ordinary people have to feel and see that their circumstances are getting better.

Staff and Learners at Maligana Secondary School attempt to clean burnt and vandalized buildings as schools in Limpopo’s Vuwani Areas returned to class on Monday, May 16, 2016, following weeks of violence which saw more than 20 schools burnt. Image: KEVIN SUTHERLAND / THE TIMES

There’s no argument against what the ANC government has delivered for the poor since 1994. You need look no further than the number of houses built, the rise of the middle class, access to water and electricity, flushing toilets and the safety net in the form of grants that the poorest of the poor have received.

But there’s no denying that inequality, poverty and unemployment are continuing to create untold resentment and stress to poor communities.

These and other factors are contributing to the anger and the resultant violence.

The starting point to a solution is to take firm action. All perpetrators of violence must be arrested, charged and jailed.

All South Africans must get the message that violence is an unacceptable means of expressing demands.

The second step is to make democracy work for everyone. Stronger avenues must be created for citizens to raise their concerns and know that their matters will receive attention.

Third, addressing unemployment, poverty, crime in communities, ending corruption and improving the level and quality of service to communities must be an important part of the equation.

Fourth, young people need to see successful people living among them – teachers, nurses, business people, sports personalities and so on.

One of the negative aspects of our economic success, especially the rise of the black middle class, is that the first thing we do when we break the economic glass ceiling is move to the suburbs due to the convenience that these suburbs provide.

Last, social infrastructure such as working hospitals and schools, public transport, sports facilities, and financial services such as ATMs need to be provided and improved.

Withdrawing cash in the townships is a nightmare. ATMs are often out of order or you have to stand in very long queues. This contributes to the black middle class abandoning townships in search of a better life in the suburbs.

South Africans must unite in their condemnation of the violence. However, we have to make our democracy work for everyone, especially the poor. The rich can go to courts tomorrow if something goes wrong in their community. They can go to the media. What does a poor family that has not had water for two weeks, or electricity for a month do, or a maths teacher who has had no classroom for a year?

Councillors must be seen to work for their communities. Otherwise, at the end of our third decade of freedom, like in Zimbabwe, there will be nothing left to burn.

Maseko is a consultant and former government spokesman

Source: Sunday Times

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