by Kempie van Rooyen


Kempie van Rooyen is a clinical psychologist and staff member of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Psychology Department.  His areas of research and teaching expertise involves the prevention and treatment of traumatic stress phenomena.  He has a particular interest in the transfer of research based knowledge and academic skills to civil society and actively works with a number of organisations involved in gender based violence.

The violence that marred the call for free, quality decolonised education is deeply troubling. It is not just the violence itself, but also about finding a way past its complexity. The turmoil has settled into an uncomfortable calm and many institutions are functioning in a space between being open and being closed. This in-between-ness was quite apparent when I recently walked on my own campus in the eerie absence of people in environments clearly made for them. It felt foreign and in between.

In the narratives surrounding the protests there was not much space for in between. On the one hand, there was the call for national shutdown until free decolonised education is realised. On the other hand, there was a call for institutions to remain open while solutions are being sought. Everyone was in agreement about free education for those that cannot afford it, but the two sides were polarised in terms of views, methods and strategies. This clear polarisation is also an indication that the common ground of the call for free education may not be that common at all.

A scene from a silent protest at WITS illustrates some of it. A group of protestors were having a silent march in support of resuming classes. The media focused on the altercations between groups, but the scenes ended with a #feesmustfall protestor shouting amidst the silent protestors. The scene was poignant not just because of its contrast, but because of the visceral nature in which the emotions were expressed. I’m not sure what others saw, but what I perceived was the amount of severe pain mixed with the anger.  It was an anger born of pain; the individual lamenting that those around him do not understand the pain of having to struggle for subsistence basics while also planning to succeed in a foreign higher education environment. He was also clearly disrupting the silent protest, but this does not diminish the pain experienced. I wonder whether the pain behind the call for free education is always clearly seen – what gets the media attention seems to be the anger aspect – the violence and disruption.  A mixed expression of pain and anger in this example, may be more palatable for most than the overt destruction of property which seemed to be a focus for much of the media.  But the pain is not less present when rocks are hurled – it is just less evident.

These more prominent violent acts become fodder for the side that wished to resume academic activities.  It was seen as destructive and devastating to our political stability and economy. In this camp, the use of violence by police was just as fervently opposed because ‘violence begets violence’.

Other arguments hailed included the democratic right to protest peacefully, but not infringe on the rights of others. And they were not wrong. Our country is facing a financial ratings downgrade, with serious concerns about the integrity of state institutions and calls from civil society for the president to step down. Add to this a series of politically motivated prosecutions in the wake of election results and a controversial state capture report and you have a serious mess. Only the really unreasonable would want to add to this turmoil right? As a country we can ill afford another serious societal disruption and the full impact of the shutdowns is still to be felt. This side called for calm and negotiation and incremental change. Which to many may seem the more reasonable path.  It may even be.

But for those affected, the longer term approach may seem like an empty promise.  It may be like asking an abused partner to be patient for change, while the abuse continues. The anger and pain that resonated the call for free education into a violent crescendo may have emanated from previously broken promises of change and the continued sense of being abused. And all the while some lived without abuse.  The inequalities of our society and the structures that keep these in place are even more tricky to negotiate than providing free education.  I don’t agree that white monopoly capital is the only structure to blame.  Corruption, patronage networks and mismanagement all form part of the matrix that keeps the poor poor.  The effect is a structural violence that is (like the pain of the angry) less evident. And often the calls for status quo may seem to reinforce this violence.  This is why, in my opinion, the choice of silent marches may be a poor one.  Because sometimes silence is the violence.

And yet, can we condone the overt violence even if we understand it? Do we condone the violence of an abused partner from snapping and lashing out at their abuser? I honestly do not know. It is complicated and I know that a choice between polarised sides in an argument that has multiple angles, is probably not going to solve much.  I do also believe that any solution that is wrought by violence is ultimately temporary, because we do not hear everything that we need to of the argument. We see the violence, but not the pain. We see the overt violence, but not the silent violence.

So where do we position ourselves as individuals and as a profession in this mess? There aren’t easy choices and multiple positions are possible, but in my opinion where we may play a role is to keep on highlighting what is not being said, what is not being understood. Like we may do for a client that needs insight. It may require voicing an opinion in an uncomfortable in between space. A place where we can understand the pain and anger that leads to violence without condoning the violence. But also recognising that the violence itself is a reaction to another more silent structural violence – which means that we need to focus there as well. In between indeed – it isn’t a comfortable space, but it may be a necessary one to occupy.

The anger and pain that resonated the call for free education into a violent crescendo may have emanated from previously broken promises of change and the continued sense of being abused.

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