Opinion Piece

Shaeera Kalla: Do not criminalise those who are marginalised

#RootingOutRacism should be about interrogating and rooting out all the systems and institutions which make being black and poor still a crime in South Africa.

The general calmness on campuses ever since the announcement and funding towards the realisation of free education was committed to by government is in many ways a smokescreen.

I say this because student leaders, current SRCs in particular, represented by the national structure, SAUS (the South African Union of Students), have been silent despite the fact that there are students who are undergoing trials and some who are languishing in prison. One such student, Khanya Tandile Cekeshe, who I visited at Leeukop prison, was sentenced to eight years, of which three years were suspended.

The judgment was made by a white judge who showed no sympathy for the 21-year-old, who has no previous criminal record. I include the race of the judge not because I believe that every black person is progressive and every white person is not – but because the case itself highlights the contradictions that exist in our society which criminalises the black child who dares challenge the status quo. Despite the recognition by all about how far we have come, we all know the saying about democracy being measured by how it treats its most marginalised members— and in South Africa the most marginalised have many interesting things to say about our democracy.

Many argue that we live in a post-apartheid apartheid – this means that being black you are still more likely to be at the bottom of the social order and therefore you are most likely to resist. The resistance of the black poor can be seen in service delivery protests, in the demands of shack dwellers and their movements for land and dignity and in the protests of young school children who study in the most disenabling environments.

We saw this in the #FeesMustFall protests, whilst some of us came from privileged backgrounds, the vast majority of students protesting in the country were from poor backgrounds with lived experience on how it feels to be financially excluded and having to choose between having two meals a day or buying your prescribed textbooks. Most students who protested for free, decolonised and quality education were peaceful. Some students and protesters began using tactics that were at times not in alignment with the law, as the repression and violence from the state and universities increased during the protests.

There was a certain level of provocation that took place, particularly in 2016, yet the criminalisation of students seems to be the sole focus of these ongoing trials. There is no inclusion of the risks that students had to take to get involved in protest, the response by police or the brutality meted out against even the most peaceful of protesters. There is enough evidence that on a number of occasions the police acted without following due process and many violations were made in terms of their conduct, yet to date, I have heard of no cop or leader of police or university being singled out for acts of violence against students, which further highlights the one-sided nature of the state’s response. I have not heard anything from police oversight body, IPID, about the investigation into my own case of police brutality, and I did submit a statement to them.

There is a particular public narrative that sought to paint black students, and African students in particular, as especially violent during FMF. It is ironic that the fight against a system that is structurally and symbolically violent became seen as violent itself. The black student, rather than the institutions that exclude and marginalise, or the systems that continue to discriminate, was seen as violent. It is at points such as these that we understand the words: “Senzeni Na, Sono sethu ubumnyama?” (What have we done, is our crime merely to be black?).

#RootingOutRacism begins with how we deal with the most vulnerable members of our society, and the provisions we make for them when they reach their lowest lows, either by choice or circumstance. The criminalisation of the marginalised is not unique to South Africa, it can be seen most blatantly in the way arrested Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi has been criminalised by the apartheid Israeli state. We need to understand that resisting an unjust system does not make someone a criminal, or in Ahed’s case, a terrorist. Of course, there are arguably limits to how we resist, based on whatever ideology or political school one follows, but the fact of the matter is that in the country we live in now, buildings, police vehicles and private property seem to be worth more than the futures of this country’s children.

This is the context within which young, talented and passionate black students are being given harsh judgments, which threaten to ruin their entire futures. Given the nature of the struggles that unfolded on campuses, and what it has meant to our country, surely there are better ways to deal with the legal issues which are criminalising students entirely? I would argue that amnesty processes are put into place at universities for expelled and suspended students as a start and then that the state considers community service for those who are on trial or in prison.

The appeals processes of these cases need to be handled with the utmost care – students like Khanya do not deserve to lose years of their life for their involvement in a just cause. The system of apartheid has been specific to our history of racism; we may have overcome apartheid but our past remains a nightmare from which we are still trying to awake. Whilst African and black people in general faced a racial hierarchy, Palestinians face an ethnic and religious hierarchy. Colonialism and apartheid are global challenges and the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel is one of the most blatant examples of settler colonialism and apartheid today. It is therefore important that as we commemorate the International Israeli Apartheid Week, a week of solidarity events for Palestine, we must again remind ourselves why exactly South Africans identify with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

For me, apart from this being a just cause, we identify with Palestinians because of how close their struggle is to our struggle against apartheid. Apartheid began as settler colonialism in the Cape Colony. This demonstrates the importance of land dispossession in creating a racially and spatially divided South Africa.

When we speak about decolonising our education system, what do we actually mean? At the heart of this is a call for a change in our culture, a renewal of our collective identity, with dignity at the heart of this renewal.

This is no easy task in a world that has become so polarised based on geopolitical power blocks. In school I learnt more about the Holocaust than I did about the genocide of Africans in the Congo by King Leopold. I learnt more about the TRC than I did about land dispossession and how it happened. If we do not understand how we got here, how can we begin to imagine how we will get to where we want to be, which remains a united non racial, non sexist, and democratic country?

To me #RootingOutRacism is not only about highlighting and subsequently condemning superficial instances of racial discrimination, which are systematic and structural. It is about finding the universality in humanity and being proud of our own identity. Being able to show that our progressive internationalism means more than just political rhetoric, and announcing free education means more than buying youth support in votes (not that I believe this was the main reason for the free education announcement, I think there were many reasons but this article is not about that so I will leave that conversation for another day).

But, we cannot be proud of our identity if we do not understand our identity, the multiplicity of cultures, traditions and backgrounds that make us who we are. When a white judge can condemn a black child to five years in jail for protesting for free education, we must know we have a serious problem.

Palestinian Ahed Tamimi is the Dikgang Moseneke of Palestine, jailed at a young age for her resistance to apartheid. And if we optimistically assume that Palestinians will one day be free of Israeli apartheid, then Khanya is the future Palestinian child who has won political freedom but is jailed for his pursuit of economic freedom.

I send strength to all those who have been silenced, sent back to poverty or locked in a prison cell. Take strength from the words of Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi

They said, ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’

I said, ‘I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.’”

#RootingOutRacism cannot be a string of talks and dialogues about the rainbow nation. It must instead conscientise the future generation about the world we can build where the birth and social status of an individual does not determine their destiny. The truth is that at the foundation of this world is equality, and to get to a point of equality, difficult decisions and priorities must be made by the state and society in general. This new culture requires the most well-meaning in society to put aside their own ideas of what is right, to listen to the most marginalised, who have been deliberately silenced or preferably unheard, and to take injustice personally. DM

Shaeera Kalla is an activist and is the former president of the Wits SRC. She is an ambassador for Anti-Racism Week. She writes in her personal capacity

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