October 20, 2016
It is time we start thinking deeply about violence again. Then again, when has there been a time in South Africa that we should not have thought deeply about violence? That which we call South Africa was constituted through extreme violence. Ours is an immensely violent space. But at this moment we seem to have found an address for our call for non-violence. In a society as violent as ours, yet with a deep history of non-violent activism as well, calling for non-violence should not be considered strange. But why do we have such a struggle to do this consistently?
Two things are lying open, coming to my attention, through the great system of sharing which is the contemporary networked society, at about the same time (although being moments about a day apart). On the one hand reports that Shaeera Kalla wareports that Shaeera Kalla was shot in the back with rubber bullets 10 times. Yes, one more moment of the horror that was the past few weeks, but through the random fact that I learned of this moments after sending the Powerpoint for a brief presentation containing an iconic photo of her leading a march about a year ago, a presentation that I’ll have to give in a foreign space tomorrow morning, this horrific moment forces me to stop. On the other hand a call, drawing broadly on Martin Luther King, for students to maintain the moral high ground and wage a non-violent struggle.
I’ve always been drawn to non-violence resistance, and while I acknowledge that it continue to be a slow learning curve for someone formed by a deeply violent culture, and a church open in its support for violence, I continue to be convinced that this is indeed what I am committed to. Why? I guess I could make long and sophisticated arguments, and I don’t deny that they are needed, but the short version is probably that it is a remnant of my WWJD spirituality, and the conviction that indeed, non-violence and deep peace was indeed central to what Jesus was about, even when elaborated in more complex arguments, remain fundamental to my conviction.
But for all of this pious conviction, piety which hopefully overflow far beyond the walls of the sanctuary, I’m left tasking a bit of bile at much of the calls for peace amidst campus protests. The inconsistencies is becoming unbearable.
With all the horror we expressed after Marikana, few who mouth non-violence were campaigning active demilitarization of the police, and even of progressively reducing police carrying and using of weapons. We seem incapable of imagining a society which express absolute horror at every moment of police brutality, yet we have a rich repertoire of language to express our outrage at the kid who picks up a stone. We are convinced that students should not respond to violence with violence, yet lack the capacity to imaging a response to vandalism (I do not deny that there was instances of vandalism and intimidation, and I cannot condone this) which does not involve state-sanctioned violence.
We insist on non-violent strategies, yet we fail to consider our own role in this. Non-violent strategies rely on the ears, the conscience, the heart, of those of us who are touched by these actions. 15000-20000 students marching to the union building in an act of non-violent protest rely on the fact that government, business, civil society, academics, and churches will in this action take note of their concern and give the kind of weight needed to shift the priorities of society. How do we call for non-violent strategies without putting our bodies into positions which allow these actions to be successful? While we might differ on the details of policies every moral fiber in our bodies should acknowledge that it can never be justified that financial means determine access to or success in education. Yet every piece of research will tell you that financial means is directly correlated with access to and success in education, also higher education. We are faced with a deeply moral concern, a fight for the soul not only of universities, but of our society: education, a key foundation of a healthy modern society, has increasingly become a commodity. We talk about education as an investment, about increased salaries as a return on investment, yet when students become the conscience of us all, forcing our attention onto the deep inhumanness of our society, we fail to give the needed weight to insure that this concern is addressed. And then we express our disgust when a different strategy is used. We like quoting King, but we forget that “a riot is the language of the unheard”.
And then we haven’t started talking about the ongoing inconsistencies in how we respond to immediate moments of violent action verses the ongoing systemic violence. We claim it is about violence, but when economic exclusion result in directly shortening the lifespan of a vast portion of the world and the country we call for slow processes of development. When student activities risk destruction to property we call for the immediate response of security forces. My pointing this out should in no way condone the moments of setting light to property, of breaking a window, but how do we call on the moral conscience of students when our own moral conscience has become totally numb to the ongoing brutalities and overly aware of the moments on transgression? Such a distortion, obviously not disconnected from the function of the images that we see flowing through our facebook feed (it is difficult to take a photo of a board of directors buying land which results in an old women needing to walk even further to get access to clean water, taking a few years off her life), should, is nothing short of a crisis of discernment, and for those of us who are religious in general and Christian in particular, it is nothing short of a crisis of faith.
Yes, I acknowledge that I struggle to imagine a world without the monopoly on violence that we have given to the nation state. But how many rubber bullets will we justify through the argument that “some students were vandalizing property and intimidating fellow students”? How many bombs dropped from planes will be justify through the reminded that there was someone that strapped a bomb to their body. And in which world to be expect that our moral call for non-violence will be heard while we bracket the state from that call? If I heard Jesus correctly then indeed violence is not part of the agenda. Indeed, Jesus did think that the Kingdom will not come through the use of violence. Jesus also walked close to those who differed from him on this point. And Jesus, it would seem to be, was clear that it was the oppressive violence of occupying forces that was of deeper concern (Dominic Crossan’s The Greatest Prayer is simultaneously historically helpful and spiritually nourishing in this regard).
In this violent society there might be few things we need more than a commitment to non-violence. But in this distorted society there might be few things which disrupt the quest for non-violence and peace more than our inconsistent insistence on non-violence.
October 23, 2015
In large part I still don’t know I got here. I’ve seldom thought of myself as much of an activist. I’m probably as uncomfortable in a protest as the next white middle-class guy. But it’s clear that the students are right. They’ve been right all along (if you ever had doubts, you can also scroll down and consider the advise in the last paragraph). I can talk about the math on why they were right if you want, but we’ll have to grab a beer or a coffee for that. For now it’s enough to just say it: they were right and I knew it. The church supported them. Academics I trust supported them. So I knew that when the march go to the Union Buildings then I will join them. I decided to join as verbi divini minister – minister of the divine word – and the dress-code clearly revealed this.
Today I saw young students, beautiful young students, on the bus I took towards the inner-city. Their water bottles gave away their agenda.
Today I saw students gathering in a park. A joyous occasion. I saw white students learning the art of politics. Slowly, hesitantly, learning what it means to be part of a mass movement. I saw a massive amount of students, reflecting the demographics of this country, singing together, marching together, joking together, sharing space and company, dreams in their eyes about the future of this country. I walked with them and I knew: if these people represent where South Africa is going, then I want in. I want to be a part of this.
Today I saw ministers from different churches joining students. Some in liturgical wear, others indistinguishable from the students around them, representing a range of churches. When signs of violence started appearing I saw a senior minister tell us: “come, we need to go there”. “Isn’t is safer here?” another asked. “Indeed it is”, he answered, “but we have to help calm things down”.
Today I saw thousands upon thousands of students gathering with utmost discipline. Insisting on peace. I know that you’ll see thousands upon thousands of photos of a small group who might not fit this description, and I’ll get to them, but the norm of the day of peace.
Today I saw violence. Perhaps I’ve never seen violence in my protected existence as close as I’ve seen it today. For my white friends, today I saw a small group of both white and black male students instigating violence.
Today I saw pastors standing in front of a fence which students want to break down and occupying that space. At least for a while. I saw them promise to students that we are here with you. We support you. But insisting that this is not the way to go. And I saw angry, deeply angry, students respect that. I plead with my fellow pastors and church leaders: I saw students showing a cautious trust towards the church and faith leaders. Cautiously considering that the church does have the kind of integrity that we will stand with them. Please, we cannot let them down. Statements are great, but we will have to get together and think deeply about how we consciously journey with the young people of this country. I say this in particular to my own church, the Dutch Reformed Church, because, let’s face it, we are very very far removed from what the average South African is going through.
Yet, today I saw a Dutch Reformed minister standing with students, actually trusted enough that they would calm down around him, at least for a while, and repeatedly explaining the churches support for these students to every journalist approached him. And many did. Colleague, you know who you are, you earned my deepest respect today.
Today I saw how even with even this utmost discipline, even with student leaders from every party and group working for peace, it is really difficult to stop a small group of instigators. Probably impossible. Before you point a finger, stand in that space. Today I watched as a fire was started close to where the stage will be. Pastors around, lawyers for human rights around, and a massive amount of students working for peace around, without resorting to further violence it is almost impossible in the long run to stop a small group of instigators. And when a tire burn is burning it is burning.
Today I saw 10000 students (I guess the official number will be confirmed later) gathered at the the Union Buildings by 12:00. There was no problem by 12. But by 13:30 there was no sign, not even an announcement, from the people that had to speak. Nor by 14:30. We stood their shaking our heads. We could see how difficult it is becoming to contain those instigating violence. We knew that working through the program will give the majority of the students something to keep the peace with. We knew that what was needed was someone with the authority to speak to get onto that podium and speak. But it didn’t happen. Forgive me for getting the impression that someone wanted to delay this until there were instances with which to delelegitimize the students.
Today I some kind of armored vehicle driving through a crowd of students as if they are not there. To that driver: what were you thinking? There was absolutely no reason for doing that! I’m no security expert, and probably never will be, but I’m quite convinced that someone who is will be able to indicate that what happened today is simply not the way to work with a crowd of students.
Today I saw journalists on both side of the fence. I saw journalists among the students and journalists among the police. I know that you had to look at the conflict, but you will tell the story in the coming days. Hats of to you who can look beyond a single incident and see the broader movement.
Today I saw students regroup after teargas was thrown around. Not up by the gates where some clashes were happening, down by the grass where students were waiting. I saw students gather themselves, following leaders, peaceful with utmost discipline, preparing to occupy that space again.
Not everything was beautiful. Not everything was perfect. But you are going to make a choice whether you want to look at the thousands of students peacefully gathering or whether you want to look at the thousands of photos of the violence that did happen. I’m not blind to what happened. I stood as close to that fire as was humanly possible. But I know that this is not what defined today. Today was defined by the insistence of the majority that this will not be another violent clash. Today was defined by the two young woman who, deep into the day, took position right in front of me, where we were pastors were occupying the space next to a fence that some wanted to break open, to form their small part of a chain. It was defined by their insistence to each other that they’ll wait until tonight if needs be, but they will not engage in violence. You choose what you want to see. But it will probably say more about you than about what happened.
Today would have been a totally different story if someone walked onto that stage at 12:00 and made the announcement that was made at 15:00. It would have defined the story of this country in a way would have been far more hopeful. Alas.
That is what I saw today. I guess I need much more time to process this. I apologize if I can’t express this correctly. But this is what I saw. To the students I marched with this morning: if you are the future of this country, then I want in. You’re walk was a symbol of hope.
And to those who think the protests was unnecessary or even wrong. I sincerely hope that you’ll pay the 10% difference in you or your child’s university fees into some bursary fund.