Plus ca change: for everyone at UWC
A keyboard is all I’ve got. I’m thousands of miles away from home, in the ridiculously scenic little vacation town of Bar Harbor in Maine, moseying around admiring toy mooses (meese?) in tourist shops and the last of the fall colours. I stop in a non-chain coffeeshop for a sandwich. There is a dollar bill stamped with “Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians” on the wall, and Fleetwood Mac on the radio. I tether myself to wifi, and open the window to home — to discover mayhem and madness.
On UWC, a campus I know well – my father once worked there, and I spent many school holidays in the herbarium he ran – riot police are charging (literally and figuratively) students, allegedly entering the residences, allegedly shooting. And some students (or are they really students?) are likewise allegedly hurling stones, bullying peers who want to write exams, trashing venues. Because our media has lost most of its teeth and its focus in the last few years, I’m reliant on social media for information, hence all the “allegedly” adverbs.
I CANNOT DO ANYTHING. Thirty years ago, I’d probably be marching. Now, those of that generation – who took part in campus anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s – watch in horror as we watch history hideously repeating. All I can offer, in the hope that it offers some insight – some sense of how relentless history can be in returning to its own vomit – are these a few memories of near-identical scenes at UCT in 1986.
Police have swarmed onto campus, gathering at the foot of Jammie steps. There are the dreaded Casspirs, the mellow yellows, the riot shields, the tear-gas canisters. Students are gathered, chanting, angry, waving placards. The Vice-Chancellor is in the middle, urgently trying to talk to leaders on both sides. Neither are listening.
I’m out in the throng today because I was teaching a class (on The Canterbury Tales, for God’s sake) when tear-gas started wafting through the corridors. I follow my students out the building, moving against the direction of the crowd – I think my plan is to get cigarettes from a colleague in the Arts block – cigarette smoke, ironically, is a good protector against tear gas.
Then I see him. A young black man running fast up behind the students, coming seemingly from nowhere. I notice two things: his shiny-white thick-treaded running shoes (a rare luxury at the time); and the half-brick in his hand. In the time it takes me to wonder where on campus he found a half-brick, it dawns: he is not a student. His clothing, his wiry body, his age – they’re all off-kilter. He hurls the brick with a javelin-throwing pitch, then turns and sprints away into the distance.
I hear what happens later from a colleague who has climbed a bollard in the middle of the melee. The brick lands smack between the cops and the yelling students, and the policeman in charge, a notoriously brutal and clever man, lunges into the back of a police van and emerges hefting a shotgun. My colleague yells in Afrikaans at the top of his voice: “DOLF ODENDAAL, LOS DAAI HAELGEWEER!” The officer pauses, then turns and throws the gun back into the vehicle. We can only speculate as to why he decided against using deadly force – possibly the use of his name?
The baton-waving cops wade into the crowd, scattering students, and start arresting bodies, at random, as far as I can see. I’ve run towards the front of the crowd, because my students are among those getting nabbed. Two of them – Andrew Brown and Sally Andrews – are today both writers, like myself. I cannot remember the name of the third of my students to be thrown into a van like a sack of spuds, but I will always remember the sight of her being arrested. She is tiny, birdlike, and she is up on the stone stairs at the side of the fray, just watching as far as I can see. A policeman goes over to her almost casually, smacks her down, then grabs one of her legs and pulls. Bump, bump, bump down the steps she goes, on her coccyx, her underwear on display. I can still feel the jolts in my own spine. My face is awash, tears making the stinging of the residual gas worse.
Somehow I find myself beside the VC, Stuart Saunders. I clutch at his sleeve: “Can’t you make it stop?” I beg. He tells me to go home. “I can’t,” I say. “Those are my students,” and he nods. A campus security guard presses my arm in sympathy. “There is nothing we can do,” he says. “Nothing.
I can’t remember what happens next. I think the arrestees spend that night in prison, because I remember them emerging, looking bedraggled, into the dock at Wynberg Magistrate’s Court, where I’ve gone to offer support. As my tiny student, supposedly a “dangerous communist rioter”, limps into view, even the magistrate sighs in frustration.
I’m back in Maine, on an extraordinarily pretty island, on Veterans’ Day (“Vets eat free today!” the local eateries declare.) My Twitter feed is even more schizophrenic than usual: adorable kitty gifs and New York Times book reviews, all mixed up with horror from home. And as I’ve been saying ever since the frustrations of a generation of students – who’ve been persistently lied to about “democracy” and “freedom” their entire lives – boiled over, plus ca change. And because so little has changed since that day on UCT, I offer this account here for all those traumatised (or re-traumatised) by today’s events. Please stay safe, everyone. Enough blood was spilled in the past: by the name of all that is holy, no more.