South Park Self

trigger warning

It's possibly a little too apposite that my car music should have just cycled into Diamond Dogs, as I've been at home for three days owning to a closed campus - the students are protesting. They barricaded the campus on Monday, and did again with added flame on Tuesday, after by all accounts an uncomfortable night at the admin building in which attempted discussions with university management eventually broke down just before midnight with a bunch of arrests. I managed to leave the house before yesterday morning's emails warning us that campus was closed for a second day, so trundled up to a bizarre, deserted, post-apocalyptic landscape in which the few students wandering around looked confused and slightly hunted, and there was a very slight haze of burning tyre smoke over everything. Today we're also off campus, which is closed for students nationally to yell at the government, to which I say yay. The government needs yelling at.

I have found my own reactions to be strangely complicated. On the one hand this seems fairly standard - students will demonstrate, bless them, and we've had a good couple of decades of relative ideological apathy, so it's rather reassuring to see that the current generation is capable of this sort of generalised moral passion. I do wish the protesters wouldn't break things, but I know how mobs work, particularly when passions are high and when there's a whole entrenched history of disadvantage vs privilege embodied in the buildings of our campus. And their thesis - that fees are too high - is absolutely valid. Our fees are too damned high - in my job I see a continual succession of these poor kids in the direst financial straits, struggling to make it work under the double whammy of high fees and under-preparation by Matric. Our fees should bloody well be protested. And while it's a lot more complicated than the students would like to believe (if we cut fees as demanded we'd go under, as far as I can tell, and the institution, far from screwing the working poor with a jaunty laugh, does put a buttload of money into financial aid), with any luck the nationwide nature of the protests will be enough to force the government to at least divert some of their corruption earmarks into our severely under-subsidised tertiary education.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the trigger effect of all this. I started university in South Africa in 1988, still under the apartheid government. While I was possibly the world's most unpoliticised and oblivious undergrad, and experienced only the trailing tail-end of the student protests, there were still marches on campus in my first couple of years, and protesters tangling with the police water-cannon on Adderley Street (the purple shall govern! Ye gods, I was only hazily aware of the whole Purple Rain protest at the time, and a quick google reveals that I had remembered the details perfectly accurately. It clearly made an impression.) The police cars all over campus yesterday and Monday, and the burning barricades, and the footage with flash-bangs and loud-hailers outside the admin block on Tuesday night, even the raised fists and shouting, catapulted me nastily and viscerally back into that far more tense and horrible time. Let's just say that students vs. government has some unpleasant historical precedents in this country, shall we?

So protesters are hard-coded as "legitimate" to me in a way which actually transcends the validity of their current point of protest. It engenders a cold, sinking feeling to have our current government by implication put into the same frame of reference as the bad old apartheid one. (I had an identically emotional response to the police casspirs in District 9). And if nothing else, my Cherished Institution has handled the whole thing with conspicuous tone-deafness, to haul in the police so early on in the process, to descend immediately into "this is illegal" in a way which instantly overwrote "let us discuss the valid point you have here", and to re-create with such fidelity the traditional battle lines of police and stun guns and armoured vehicles as the threatening backdrop to student protest. It's perfectly obvious to the most untrained eye that that was never going to go down well.

In all sorts of weird ways South African apartheid was never my battle, but in all sorts of weird ways it is, not just because I was there for its fall and live here now - because these are my students, and the effects of apartheid are still playing out in their lives, and one upshot of my job is that I feel protective and worried about them, and very invested in their happiness and success. Some of them have crossed lines they shouldn't have in these protests, and are going to face potentially life-ruining consequences. We have had lectures disrupted, and exams might still be affected, and I know that I'm going to be dealing with emotional and physical fallout from these protests as students wander through my office attempting to unravel the ramifications for their studies. And I can only hope that it's all worth it, that it works, that our thrice-damned government will remember its roots enough to respond appropriately.

And because that's all too damned serious, I shall end with entirely another sense of emotional trigger that is equally about history and investment and struggle and moral polarities: the new Star Wars trailer made me cry.
Writing as a complete outsider, the new form of government of the whole Rainbow Nation was always going to be adjudged not on Mandela's presidency but the presidency of the next man, and the person elected after him - always assuming he hadn't followed the too common African model and taken over for life!

Students always reckon their courses and living costs too much. Even back in the seventies when I was a student, on a government grant, other students were protesting their grants weren't enough. I don't know, I managed to live perfectly comfortably and save up towards a deposit on a home a few years later. But then, I didn't spend most nights in the bar drinking my grant away!

Meanwhile it seems like governments - yours and ours - place very little value on children and young people and their ongoing education. Maybe they want to raise generations of more-or-less ignorami who will not question what they are doing?
Students always reckon their courses and living costs too much. ... But then, I didn't spend most nights in the bar drinking my grant away!

Rather a different scale here. We have students living under bridges, unable to eat for several days at a time, sending their financial aid money home because they're the sole support to their extended family, etc. Government has been steadily cutting our subsidy by the year, so we've had to put fees up to make ends meet; the university is desperately trying to cut costs at the moment. I am seeing increasing numbers of students through my office because they're either failing because they're having to work long hours at the same time as study, or because they're arranging to take a year or two off their studies to earn money to afford it. Seriously, this is not the stereotypical irresponsible-student situation. The landscape these kids are trying to navigate is infinitely more brutal than it was 20 years ago.
I think it may be getting like that over here too. Apart from students being the sole breadwinner for their families.

The government got rid of Student Grants and brought in Student Loans twenty or more years ago. Thus any student now graduates with thousands of pounds of debt which needs repaying, albeit at a fairly reasonable rate and over around twenty-five years.

But yes, the landscape students are trying to navigate appears more brutal here too. Mind you, now it's reckoned that maybe half of school-leavers go on to university. Back in the day when I went it was around 3%! Consequently the modern BA or BSc isn't really worth the paper/parchment it is written on and even fairly basic 'Degree level entry' jobs tend to ask for a Master's at least.