Approaching protesters

“What are students protesting about now?” – sound familiar anyone?

Many of us are more than happy complaining about protest action in the comfort of our own home [myself included]. The problem is that we tend to be ignorant of the underlying social inequalities to which protesters are publicizing and make judgment calls based on shallow opinions on social media, or even worse, on the complaints of other privileged individuals.

So, today (September 21) while walking past protesting students who created a barricade at UCT’s Hiddingh Campus (based in the CBD), I decided to engage with them and obtain first-hand knowledge of their reasoning behind their protest.

To set the atmosphere – tens of students protesting peacefully. Armed riot police standing by in their armoured vehicles and a barricade to the campus which consisted of bins, chairs and cars. And here I was standing with a protester having a completely constructive conversation – just one student talking to another.

I started the conversation by breaking the ice and asking one of the protesters how the meeting on Hiddingh Campus was going [as I had read about it earlier in the day]. She said it was successful…

 

I cautiously jumped into my first question I initially intended to ask;

‘’It seems like protesters want to keep campus closed until they receive free education. How long do you think campus will actually remain closed?’’ I asked. She made it clear that there were two points that needed to be emphasized here.

 

(1) That it was, admittedly, unrealistic to implement free education for next year (which tells us that students don’t actually plan to keep campus closed until we have free tertiary education).

(2) But rather that protesters will try to keep campus closed until their matters are genuinely deliberated among UCT executives. She felt that the protesters are only being seen and that the public are aware of what their demands were, but that no actions were being taken to meet these demands. She went on to say that if the university sat down and actually asked themselves “Okay, so what can we do to make UCT fees free?” and then try to implement such procedures in the near future, then protesters may be more content with returning to normal academic activities on campus.

For me, this felt like a reasonable response, since the initial purpose of a protest is to make another party aware of something and then rectify the matter at hand. Additionally, government did say 4 years ago they plan to make education free. But then I used some intersectionality theory and tried to decipher how she felt about me, being a privileged white male, standing in these hostile spaces.

 

‘’Since these protests actually relate to social inequalities in South Africa, and the protest action is trying to help individuals who come from underprivileged backgrounds, what role does a white person play, not assuming all whites are wealthy, but making a judgement call on protester demographics, within these protests?’’

I could see there was spark of surprise in her eyes – that a white male was asking her how white people can help with these protests – but she responded politely and pleasingly:

 

Donations is what we need. Protesting can absorb quite a large amount of resources like food, water and money. And she said those will be very helpful. Furthermore, transportation is needed to get the crowds from place to place and by having willing individuals to drive these crowds over longer distances will help bring in larger numbers of people. She also said that white people have in fact been donating thus far and that it is very much appreciated.

After her response, a small group of protesters, who were now leaving Hiddingh Campus, had come into a small confrontation with riot police, which defused relatively quickly. I am uncertain as to what it was about, but it seemed like the riot police were querying where the crowd were headed.

From this experience, I learnt that if you truly want to understand what these protests are about, then do not cling to what the media is saying, rather engage in dialogue with those directly involved in the matter. I, by no means, have enough knowledge to say anything more than what has already been said.  Engagement that sides with empathy is probably key in sorting out the matters at hand – since every argument founts from a misunderstanding.

This post does not necessarily ‘take a side’ but rather to act as ocular proof that one can engage with protesters by doing the basics of speaking and listening to one another. And not proceeding to ‘other’ these human beings or cast them as unworthy of the simplicity and pleasantries of basic human interaction.

**picture taken at the consent of protesters**

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