RECENTLY, while in the middle of a regular morning trawl through an online media archive, the silence in my office was disturbed by the sound of distinctly African, joyous singing, coming from not too far away. Never one to turn down a good distraction, I stepped back from the proverbial haystack for a few moments to go and inspect the sound.
Wits has a beautiful Great Hall with Parthenon-style columns, which is connected to the building that houses my office. The enormous Hall hosts graduation ceremonies every year and, upon closer inspection, I found that the celebratory sounds were emanating from the family and friends of just-graduated students who had participated in the first of many ceremonies that would be held that week.
Back in Ireland, my desk is located in the University of Limerick’s Foundation Building, where all of the graduation ceremonies take place.
Therefore, after a few years in the building, the sight of robes and scrolls arouses little excitement in me, apart from triggering a Pavlovian hunger response since graduations mean that free finger food is about to become available to PhD students in possession of enough stealth to slip in amongst the families of the graduates.
Graduations, it seems, in Wits are an entirely different occasion from those that I have grown used to in Ireland, however.
The first morning that I ventured over to the Great Hall to investigate the jubilant sounds, I was greeted by the sight of about 30 young men, singing and shuffling in unison towards the steps of the Hall (click for video), in anticipation of one of their friends who was about to emerge with his scroll. Unsure of what was going on, I asked another onlooker whether this was something that the University had organized for graduates all week.
“No, this is for one person. They are all from his community,” the girl responded.
When their friend emerged on the steps of the Great Hall along with the other graduates, the singing and shuffling accelerated and the men clearly became excited. They made their way, keeping to the rhythm of their singing, over to their friend and when they reached the foot of the steps, he jumped into the middle of them all and sang and danced along with them.
Meanwhile, other circles had started to form around other graduates as they made their way towards their families and friends. Some were small, consisting of a group of no more than five or six, but were no less joyful as the participants sang with eyes closed and hands in the air. Others were as large as the congregation that I had first seen (click for video).
For a few minutes, the entire courtyard in front of the Great Hall was taken up with many different circles of celebrants and graduates, all singing and dancing, many employing beautiful harmonies and others still layering the voices over each other with certain lines for the ladies and others for the men (click for video). Many of the circles moved in and out with a pulse that went along with the music. It was genuinely breath taking and stood in stark contrast to violent scenes that unfolded in the same space only a few months ago.
In the latter half of 2016, Wits was the site of fierce protests, which were prompted by a decision to increase student fees. The protests made international headlines and resulted in serious property damage around the campus as well as injuries to students, staff and police. A few weeks ago, a lecturer from my department in Wits showed me a scar left on his forearm by a rubber bullet, which he sustained while trying to protect students from over-zealous riot control police.
Watching the unbridled joy of the newly graduated students and the verging-on-tearful pride of their family and friends outside the Great Hall, it became a little easier to understand the nature of those protests. That is not to justify the violence of students or police but rather to recognise one of the nuances of what ultimately became a very dark chapter in the University’s history.
Passion can manifest in many ways, not all of them pleasant, and both the celebrations that I witnessed in front of the Great Hall and the violent events that took place in Wits a few months ago seem like manifestations of the high value that is put on education here. Of course, one could also reasonably argue that the protests were manifestations of something else. Protest, for one, seems to be built into the South African psyche.
Like so many other observable trends in South African society, one can easily draw a connection between this phenomenon – the prestige assigned to education – and the Apartheid Struggle.
The leaders of the Struggle were, in many cases, well-educated thinkers and tacticians, who used their knowledge and experience to challenge the Apartheid regime and to garner support from the international community. The ANC and its supporters didn’t just spend money to create camps for exiled freedom fighters in bordering countries; much of their funds also went towards sending their operatives to universities in Europe, the USA and Russia.
Political engagement here amongst young people is incomparable to the pathetic level of interest shown by students and their elders, for the most part, in Ireland. Based upon my admittedly limited experience here, it’s tempting to say that a similar disparity exists between how South Africans and the Irish value education.
That difference in how politics is perceived can also, to some extent, be explained by the toppling of Apartheid. Such a vivid and tangible example of what can be achieved through both education and politics seems to have left its imprint in the national mindset.
Sadly, that historic victory over injustice has had negative side effects also, with the most obvious right now being the leeway President Jacob Zuma is afforded by a significant but shrinking proportion of the public, by virtue of his being a Struggle stalwart. The ANC, and to some extent, South Africa as a whole is divided over the current President.
He has overseen a declining economy, a hollowing out of the country’s reputation as a champion of human rights and has been subject to well-substantiated accusations of facilitating state capture for his close friends, the multi-millionaire Gupta family. Predictably, whenever he faces criticism, Zuma resorts to identity politics and will claim that his detractors are motivated by a desire to keep the black majority down.
‘White Monopoly Capital’ has become the bogeyman that Zuma can reliably turn to whenever well-founded accusations are levelled against him. The strategy of blaming all of South Africa’s ills on white business leaders was, according to an investigation by the Sunday Times, thought up by the Bell Pottinger PR firm in London. Along with the Gupta family, Bell Pottinger has an illustrious client list, which has included names such as Asma Assad, Augusto Pinochet and the government of Bahrain.
It’s incredibly frustrating to watch Zuma use the high standing he undoubtedly earned as a freedom fighter for such scurrilous ends as a President. His time in power will end though, and if the sentiment around Joburg is anything to go by, it will be sooner rather than later.
And long after he goes, one hopes that the many positive outcomes of the Struggle will retain their place in South Africa’s social fabric, meaning rehabilitation of its reputation as a leader in human rights protection, a rejection of the divisive rhetoric employed by the country’s current leader and a continuation of the elation and pride that people experience at seeing one of their own excel in third level education.
Based upon the jubilant scenes that continued all week on the steps of the Great Hall in Wits, there is reason to at least be optimistic about that final aspiration.