The Kids Are Not All Right
In first year, I was terrified of the Law Library. I guess it was classic freshman nerves: I wasn’t sure I wanted to study Law, and my mild paranoia meant every librarian, professor and student seemed to sniff out the doubt in me. Its towering shelves and coziness were intimidating, so I avoided it at all costs.
In second year, I had to start using the Law Library because all the textbooks we needed (but I didn’t have the money for) were there. “I thought you didn’t know where the library was.” a friend smiled as she took the seat next to me. That same day I almost broke the photocopier because I wasn’t sure how to use it.
It’s third year now, and my friends and I have a “spot” in the Law Library. It’s on the balcony overlooking the main study area. We watch Korean dramas, try to get the attention of our friend’s crush, and sometimes study. I even know the regulars, and they don’t rat on me when I sneak in Oreos or use a reserved textbook for more than an hour. The towering shelves are welcoming, and the coziness reminds me of home.
Two weeks ago, during university protests, a section of the Law Library, including the balcony, was burned down. If you read the articles in our local newspapers, heard opinions on talk shows or spoke to that unfortunate person from high school that you still see at the supermarket, you’d find biting, often racially charged, insults flung at the culprits. “They’re animals!” “They don’t deserve an education!” “These are the ones who fail and start trouble for the rest!” “Ban them forever!”
When the #FeesMustFall protests started last year, we not only witnessed the power we wielded, but the fickleness of our media and parents. In the first few days, we were dismissed from all directions: tertiary education is not for everyone, our demands were unrealistic or we just wanted to cut class. We were entitled, arrogant and disrespectful. And if you didn’t already know, we were everything wrong with the country.
Fast-forward to a storming of Parliament by angry students and demands to hold our Minister of Higher Education to account, and the narrative shifted. We were brave youngsters. The next generation of freedom fighters. How proud Mandela would be! What changed was that our force suddenly fit their agenda. For ages everyone had been complaining about a corrupt government who squandered money on jets, private homes and nuclear deals while the country was in shambles, and finally a group of people stepped up to do something about it. They didn’t care about our cause for free education in a country where one of the only chances for mobility is a qualification — they cared about us doing their work for them. Our student leaders were put on pedestals (or magazine covers) and they’d change their WhatsApp display pictures to DSLR-quality photos of us marching in the streets. Our pain was their fake deep inspiration behind their desks and on their couches. Our struggle was romanticised, evading the fact that we shouldn’t have one at all.
To be black and young in South Africa today is to be in a perpetual state of interrelated confusion and frustration. While the frustration of rich, white youth is celebrated and engaged with in New York Times bestsellers, ours is shunned, shamed and punished. Holden Caulfied was born into a world that didn’t understand him. We’re born into one that doesn’t think we’re worth understanding.
The youth is the largest demographic in our country, and yet the one most severely plagued by unemployment. We are the first generation to grow up in a democratic South Africa while still facing the consequences of apartheid, but we are exempt from the nervous condition. We carry the entirety of humanity’s knowledge in a piece of metal in our pockets, but we’re still considered barbarians without any brain cells. We’re told education is the answer, but also that education is not for us. We are held as the “born-frees”, the ones our forefathers fought for, but when we want to extend that struggle and the values we were taught in every History lesson growing up, we are just a nuisance trying to disrupt the status quo.
Yes, we are trying to disrupt the status quo. It is our duty to disrupt the status quo when the status quo is unjust. Nostalgia has a nasty habit of filtering memory, and our parents seem to have forgotten that their beloved Rainbow Nation was achieved with force, violence and disruption. When we protest, they try to undermine us with condescension. “Anti-intellectual” they call us. “This is not the way to do it.” they advise.
Not like this.
Not for these reasons.
We’re told to respond to outrage in a way that is convenient for them — we must make our cause palatable. But palatable and convenient is code for not acknowledging or challenging the privileges that allow these oppressive structures to flourish. Palatable and convenient are our enemies.
Maybe it’s a grave side effect of growing up that we see the humanity of our heroes. That they’re not infallible, but flawed. In declarations of commitment to youth empowerment we see the dismissal of our concerns. In Youth Day celebrations we see the stern paternalism that we should be grateful. In rousing speeches of our nation’s bright future, we see decisions made about us, without us. In the reminder that no one is entitled to anything, let alone tertiary education, we see the caveat that only they are entitled to outrage, to anger, to revolution. In public lamentations of the destruction of the Law Library, we hear: “Your life is not as important as a building.”
If you look over your computer screen in the Law Library, you’ll see the preamble of our Constitution sandblasted into the panel of glass. All our lives we’ve been given these tools to decide what is right and to fight for it, but now we’re told nothing needs fixing. The problem is our veterans and our parents believe democracy alone is the height of governmental achievement. That because we all can vote and the “Net Blankes” signs at the beach have been removed, we have no cause for complaint. After all, we are Tata’s children and have never lived through the horrors of the past. Why would we be angry?
We’re angry because we’re dehumanised whether we are the animals or the heroes. We’re angry because the people with power disregard us. We’re angry because the people who know exactly what we’re going through disregard us. We’re angry because nine times out of ten they are the same people.
No student woke up two weeks ago with a desire to add “arsonist” to their CV. No student was bored so decided to fight structural oppression and shut down an entire university. No student wants to deal with the anxiety, PTSD and alienation that comes with protests. And I promise, no student hates libraries. This torching and this movement cannot be viewed in a vacuum — it’s been a long time coming. Years of microagressions and marginalisation, promises made and broken, and waiting for the freedom we were told we have, has led us here. The youth are fed up with excuses and commissions and teaching adults the history they lived through while simultaneously trying to make our own. If our government isn’t for us, if our country isn’t for us, who is?
When it comes to our future, we’re no longer content with a seat at the table. We’re taking the table.