Reflections on the recent student protests & the role and meanings of food

Prepared by: T. Bongwana                                                          Date: 31/10/2015

I have been struggling for a very long time to start this piece. Inside my own head there has been conflict, turbulence, and a burning rage about the current state of affairs at the University of the Western Cape. I single out UWC particularly because it is home to me; I am both a student here and a resident in one of its residences. That therefore affords me insight to offer reflections through an insider perspective in all sense. I will not comment on other universities, although I suspect that similar dynamics to what I describe have been raised there.

What started out as peaceful protests by students from various academic institutions under the banner hash tag #FeesMustFall movement gained momentum nationally, across borders and ultimately going global. The ideologies and goals of the movement as I see it and as it has been expressed by student leaders and many supporters of the movement is simply to put an end to outsourcing of staff which seeks to exploit and underpay the working class, and to also bring an end to exorbitant annual fee increases with the view of a free quality education for all; – when our government can devise successful strategies of turning this into a reality, as it still remains an elusive dream for now.

However, as students we have indicated that we will for now seek solace in the short-term resolution under the Presidency of Mr Zuma of a zero per cent increment in 2016, whatever that means. (This was publicly announced on the 23rd of October, 2015)

The country is in turmoil as paramount pressure from students have resulted in a national shutdown. As we know, violence and police brutality ensued, and this was similar to what faced our parents during the apartheid era when the then youth protested against educational and other injustices under the apartheid government.

The issues then were different from those we are dealing with now, but the level and form of the police response has remained constant. One could almost think that the South African Policing and Defence Units are actually told that they will qualify for the profession only if they knew how to hold a gun to another person’s head, whip mercilessly with a baton stick, or kick hard with their tactical boots, shoot to kill, and forget their brains and sense of reasoning at home.

It seems to me that the law enforcement manual says ‘act now and ask questions later even if it is your own child’. The logic of these so called men and fathers baffles me! I cannot stop wondering what becomes of them when the guns are put away, and when they have no teargas, stun grenades, water cannons, and vicious dogs to use on others. It is not surprising to me that police headed households with their dehumanised behaviour has been associated with such high levels of suicide, spousal homicide cases, and family execution rates among.

Moving away a little from the brutality of the police and their role in dealing with protests, I have realised that there are numerous issues embedded in the struggle under the #FeesMustFall banner. Camouflaged therein lie deep issues of literal and symbolic hunger, and many politically motivated agendas, with each group pulling in a different direction depending on what will benefit the ‘group’. The reality is that there are many internal issues around student leadership or lack thereof, and as a result, this campus has become a battle field with parties in a quest to settle old scores, discredit or denounce the other as end goal.

So the campus has been in turmoil: students have been left to clean their common areas as we are without cleaners, and the services on which we usually rely on as students residing on campus. I have been amazed that it has been officially claimed that the institution does not have funds, yet it miraculously scraped funds from their hidden reservoirs to evacuate 1st years from their respective residences to places of ‘safety’ in guesthouses and to ship off  its SRC Leadership structure to hotels. Another huge chunk of these ‘unavailable’ funds has been used to  employ specially trained security companies, tactical police force, dog units, and all that is pertaining to ‘law and order’ including medical personnel in the event that they do endanger lives. Yet, no one thought of contingency measures for poor and deserving students that usually eat from the dining halls through the use of their NSFAS meal allowances.

It is in this light that I find myself at two minds about the lootings that have been going on – which seem to have targeted food cafes and spaza shops on campus. I feel deeply about this because I know that some students are genuinely hungry and some join in protests or groups because there is an incentive that comes from needing to be fed.

Out of the two week break or temporary closure of our campus, Res Life attempted to make food provisions available by recruiting students (mostly house committee members from various residences) to prepare meals and deliver them from door to door in residences. But the process was a success only for one night. The following day saw the death of the practice as protesting students got wind of the initiative and subsequently took food forcefully from the students that had prepared it. Most of the take away boxes were captured on social media, with food splattered on the floor mostly uneaten, so the efforts of that day went to waste.

My better judgement would call this desperate behaviour gangsterism, yet another part of me knows there are deeper issues at hand. The feeling of desperate hunger! Food insecurity and aggressive protesting do not go hand in hand. I am not justifying the acts of those that did wrong by behaving in the manner in which they did. I am merely saying there is a bigger picture here and we need to develop our lenses for maximum vision before we can conclude by casting stones.

I am also unable to conclude. But I find peace in the grace that has been bestowed upon me in the form of food in my room, even though I know that it too will run out. I am “guilty” of having this short-term relative privilege, but how can I be condemned for that. I believe that am also able to see from the ‘other’ standpoint; that of poverty and food struggles which may often compromise an individual’s principles and overall position.

Aggression and violence can be a means to an end, and not necessarily the desired end for the individual especially if its means destroying, stealing, and looting food and all things not rightfully belonging to you. I firmly believe that many who have resorted to violence and “dishonesty” in obtaining food are fellow students who, under different circumstances, would be horrified by violent and dishonest behaviour. But this has been the only road possible in order for them to not go to bed on empty stomachs.

I will not question or critique further the modalities of the struggles at the University of the Western Cape as this would probably take several pages and much lengthy attempts at analysis to unpack. But I do hope that things will be back to normal soon. However complicated “normalcy” may be, but for me it means NOT to be surrounded by armed cops 24/7 forcing you to simply stay cooped up in your room especially if you are someone like me who is terrified of guns.

If this was intended for my protection as per the Rector’s reasoning, then why am I scared of things that are meant to protect me and keep me from harm? The only harm I see now is having my freedom to leave my room, to walk around on campus, and lastly to buy the food to sustain me until all campus operations are fully functional taken away from me. Lastly, one is entitled to wishing, and I wish all students could be united, all food struggles and cultures reconciled in order for students to push for the same cause, in one direction, thereby allowing for progressive transformation that will enable our voices to be heard.  I fear that the desperation for food among many students has discredited their plight and led to the criminalising of their actions.

In the eyes of onlookers we are all the same, under one household, and I too accept the guilty by association verdict, now can we please map a progressive way forward, reconcile, heal and move on!



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