Category Archives: Philosophy

Had They Been There: The White Middle Class Meets the Radical Politics of a Certain Messianic Nazarene

It was a pleasant afternoon, ordinary enough by the standards of false tranquillity in Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs, when the scarcely-possible happened. In an absurd turn of events, the sort usually constrained to the pages of science fiction, a wormhole opened for a moment at Tashas in Rosebank, transporting a group of white, upper-middle class South Africans across space and time to a particularly tumultuous First Century Jerusalem.

Upon arrival, they complained (but we must forgive them, for this is their second nature), about all the potholes, before running into a messenger for Camel-through-a-Needle’s-Eye Witness News (CNEWN, a local news outlet). The messenger rambled on in Aramaic to the strangely-dressed people. Fortunately, among the travellers was Christina, who had studied the obscure language during her time at university (before, as she is fond of saying, “they ruined the place”). Listening through the interpreter’s ear, they were informed about a certain Levantine Jewish radical who was disrupting the day-to-day lives of the Jerusalem elite.

The man, they were told, was part of a violent minority that, instead of engaging ‘rationally’ and following bureaucratic processes, chose to express its discontent by entering the city and defying, even mocking, the power structures. They were told of how he entered the Temple of Jerusalem, drove out all who traded there, and violently overturned the tables of the dove merchants and money changers [1] . The radical, reported CNEWN, was a self-declared champion of the poor [2] who came from a modest, lower-class family in rural Judea. He detested the Roman Occupiers and those among his own Jewish people who’d grown scandalously wealthy through collusion with Rome. Having arrived only ten minutes earlier, the travellers had no understanding of the complex socio-politics that underlined his actions. They  made no attempt to sympathise with why this radical was angry, for locating an argument within socio-politics and attempting to understand context was never really their forté. So their responses came quickly and rather recklessly:

“I mean, if he really wanted all people to gain access to the Temple, why would he try to destroy it?”

“Don’t the money changers and pigeon [sic] merchants have rights too? Why would he violate their rights when fighting for his own? Did he have to drive out the traders to make his point? Clearly, he’s lost the plot.”

“Couldn’t he protest peacefully? There’s a difference between a protest and a riot, you know? It’s time we call him what he is: a hooligan bent on anarchy.”

“He’s a free-loader. Nothing comes for free hey. He just hates those who have because he’s too lazy to educate himself and become successful. Typical. Why does he want to visit the temple without paying for the sacrifices? How is the temple supposed to run without those fees?”

As they stumbled around later that night, searching desperately for a Starbucks in the streets of First Century Palestine, a messenger brought another CNEWN bulletin, alerting them that the radical, along with 12 accomplices (some of whom were armed and violently resisted arrest [3]), had been apprehended by the authorities. The leader had been detained, and was to be tortured and executed by crucifixion.  Again, the paternalistic responses came quickly from the travellers:

“What? There were only 13 of them? This just serves to show that they’re a radical minority, just as CNEWN has been reporting. The vast majority, the silent majority of people in Jerusalem just want to go back to their daily lives. I’m sure if asked, 77%, at least, would vote to just have things the way they were.”

“It’s called Law and Order. The sooner these hooligans learn to respect that, the better.” 

Within the next week, the Roman Authorities posted a notice in the public square and on the gates of Jerusalem’s Temple:

“Earlier today, the treasonous radical and blasphemer, Yeshua of Nazareth, was crucified upon a hill in Golgotha. It is with great regret that we’ve been forced to take these necessary measures needed to ensure the safety and security of our territory and citizenry.”

Some of our travellers remarked at the terrible necessity of violence to control anarchy, while others openly boasted. The radical, unrecognisable because his strange name and dark skin were untouched by the bleach of Eurocentric whitewashing, was not human to them. So they refused to speak of him as one, to place themselves within his shoes, or upon his crucifix. As they continued to echo one another’s sentiments, space-time snapped back into place, transporting them once again into the sanctuary of their present, the polished tables and airy milieu of Tashas in Rosebank.

Unfortunately, their minds, being tragically linear and hostile towards complexity, were incapable of containing a radical distortion of space-time. Their leap into the past, then, was instantaneously jettisoned, and they retained no memory of it at all. So they finished their meals, climbed into their luxurious sedans and listened to Talk Radio 702 as they coasted back into their gated communities.  Without hesitation, they receded into the perverse normalcy of an outrageously unequal world…

On Mondays, they began their weeks by driving their children to a private school, wondering aloud along the way at why the homeless on the streets couldn’t “just get a job”. On Friday evenings, they ended their weeks by meeting once again at a high-end restaurant to discuss the formulaic pleasures of suburban life. On Sundays, however, many of them went to Church and prayed, kneeling at the foot of that radical – a man whose crucifixion they had cheered and whose torture they had justified, because even when confronted with the struggle of their own Messiah, they could never bring themselves to sympathise with the dispossessed.

Note: Seeing as I may be accused of fabricating these Biblical events, the references to the New Testament are reproduced here:

[1] Mathew 21:12

[2] Luke 6:20-21, Luke 4:16-19

[3] John 18:10

Advertisements

Red Flags, Red Berets and the Ballot Coup: Free Education and the Wits SRC Election

147163933747005

(Photo: Delwyn Verasamy, Mail and Guardian)

Wits is alive with the tumultuous energy of struggle song, while political regalia dots the campus with patches of yellow, and patches of red. With the SRC election less than a week away, the campus which birthed Fees Must Fall last October is set to elect its next set of student representatives. At this crucial juncture in South African student history, this year’s SRC election is far more significant than a mere exercise in political posturing. Its outcome will shape the future of the student movement and the strategy that will be implemented in the battle for free education. This year’s election, therefore, demands the undivided attention of us all.

Three parties are set to face off next week. The incumbent party, holding thirteen out of fifteen seats in the current SRC, is the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – a coalition of the ANC Youth League, SASCO, the Young Communists League and the Muslim Students Association. They are being challenged by the Wits EFF Students’ Command and Project W. No party in the field is perfect. However, this should not render them equally ineffectual in the eyes of the student body. Some are better, some are worse, and others are, if we are to be honest, an embarrassment.

To get the embarrassment out of the way, let’s deal with Project W. Project W is a cynical experiment in solipsism, built upon the fallacious notion that a university’s SRC can be apolitical in a political world. Their stunning refusal to engage the complexities of the socio-political space is matched only by their masochistic impulse to lead with this idea of an apolitical campus when publicly squaring off with their opponents. The party patronises students by assuming that we are equally incapable and unwilling to tackle political complexity. Given the role of politics on campus – and indeed, the role of campuses in politics – over the decades, Project W is as ahistorical as they are apolitical. Their neutrality in political situations of moral urgency serves to bolster oppressive power structures and inflate the confidence of the ruling class. Engaging the country’s socio-politics is crucial, extraordinarily so in the context of the movement for free education. Project W is hence extraordinarily irrelevant, even by their own standards. Their conspicuous absence during Fees Must Fall is a sobering reminder that, were they to win this election, their line will jeopardise the future of the student movement. Project W is a galaxy of fallacies that aggregated from a cloud of delusion and apathy. They are a non-option.

The choice is hence between the PYA and the Wits EFF. The EFFSC has abandoned its distaste for the official political space (a distaste that one may argue is justified, given that their party was collectively punished last year and barred from running) and is now a serious contender. The campaign they have implemented balances Bikoist ideology with the consideration of basic issues that directly impact students. (It is noteworthy that this exposes another flaw in the Project W line, for one needn’t be apolitical to aid students in graduating). Echoing the process which drafted the Freedom Charter – amongst the most radical leftist documents in our nation’s history – the EFF has crowd-sourced their election manifesto, compiling it from the suggestions of the students whom they wish to represent. The party’s propensity for political disruption, a core tenet of effective protest, is indubitable – something indispensible in a battle against a system that stifles momentum through bureaucracy and delay. The EFF has therefore built a base from which they hope to claim the majority of the SRC from the PYA. Come next week, the Fighters’ Student Command is hoping to execute a Ballot Coup.

What, then, justifies the urgency of ousting the old guard? The incumbent PYA is aligned with the ANC, and hence a contradiction lies at the core of their organisational identity. Luthuli House provides the party with funding, support, and the occasional order to pacify student populations and halt protests. At times, it seems the PYA has inherited the arrogance of its parent organisation. When the Wits council debated the overhaul of IT infrastructure on campus, a project that will cost over half a billion rand, this SRC supported the move without consulting the student body, failing to account for the fact that it’s absurd to spend a nine-digit figure on improving wifi access on a campus where students don’t have accommodation or food. Moreover, red flags must be raised over the PYA’s decision to halt the university shut down last year before an insourcing commitment had been won. When a party intends to exploit the pain of exploited workers, only to dispose of them afterwards, students must respond in kind and dispose of that party. The workers are not a periphery concern – betraying them is inexcusable.

All of that said, I do not wish to discredit everything the Alliance has achieved. Nor am I implying that there aren’t committed comrades within the PYA who are invaluable to the student movement. It is possible to be more nuanced.  Yes, the PYA-led SRC played a crucial role in halting this year’s fee increase, galvanising students and driving free education to the top of the agenda. However, the PYA-led SRC was also crucial in the dissolution of student unity and the obstruction of that very agenda. The breakdown of trust between a university’s SRC and its students crippled last year’s movement for free education and squandered the momentum that we had gathered. We cannot allow for this to be repeated.

The SRC is the sole body with an official popular mandate. Tremendous legitimacy is lent to the movement if its leadership is elected by students, for students. However, we cannot have an SRC led by a PYA that can prioritise its partisan alliances over workers and the cry for free education. We should not accept an SRC that implores students to celebrate a non-increase within a broken status quo, while refusing to address the core of the problem because it involves confronting their superiors at Luthuli House. To allow the ANC to speak through a PYA SRC is to allow the establishment to dictate the terms of a movement that was forged in opposition to its failures. 

Soon, it will become necessary to indict the ANC government and hold it accountable in a concrete way. At the moment, it seems the PYA would rather pander to xenophobia and punish innocent immigrant shopkeepers than do so.  We cannot allow the SRC to be turned into a fundraising office while the structural inequality is left unaddressed. Last year’s failures are proof that we cannot trust the ANC to march on itself. Moving forward, we need a student leadership that is not tied to the agenda of the ruling party. What is needed now is student unity – a unity that is difficult to forge while this conflict of interest is alive within our elected structures. The PYA can be part of the new SRC, but if it’s unity we want, it is best if they do not lead it. If they do, we need to disabuse them of their loyalty to their parent party, or organise beyond the official. However, achieving either of these will be no easy task. Ideally, we need an alternative.

At this election, therefore, I will cast my vote in favour of the party with the largest base among workers, a party that didn’t evaporate after the marginal concession of a 0% increase was won. It is also the party whose iconoclasm has animated our national politics and that is unafraid to articulate the rage of the black child against an ANC that is corrupt and failing to redress inequality. When I walk into that voting booth, I shall strike my pen across the boxes next to the red berets.

The reason for doing so is simple: if the EFF wins a majority in the SRC, effectively counterbalanced by a smaller contingent of PYA members, we will place ourselves within a dispensation wherein student unity can be rebuilt without the risk of the ruling party completely derailing it. The ANC is not the only threat to the forging of a united student front, but it is quite possibly the greatest one we face. If we overcome it, we can prompt a surge in momentum that will once again transform us into a formidable force – a force that must prise open the doors of higher education, with urgency.

Oh When We Were Free: An Ode to Freedom of Thought

Freedom, Ann Fogarty

Oh when we were free
to let our thoughts roam
– throw certainty to sea
and plant musings in the mind’s loam.

Oh when we had liberty,
when we had not knotted tongues
to declare the lies of authority
that beat the air from our tired lungs.
 
Oh when we shunned banality,
when our brains were more than cells,
holding the prisoner of rationality
in nine circles of Dante’s Hell.
 
Oh, when fetters of fire failed to bind
– the heretic’s truth, under boot and fist.
When the marching orders from the mind
blasphemed bravely: Resist.

Yet unto liberation, powerless we are not,
for ours are first the fetters
and ours are first the knots.
Ours is first the apathy
that our certainty begot.

So victorious must we emerge from this internal war,
before our minds are truly free to wander once more.
 

Raees Noorbhai

Rebellion is a fire, sparked by the friction between a freedom which dwells deep within us, and a world which abhors it. This poem is an ode to that internal freedom – and a recognition of our power to suffocate it for fear of burning our hands. It is a song of longing, superimposed upon the passage of time, expressed in the language of nostalgia. Nostalgia for a past that perhaps never did exist, but nostalgia nonetheless. It is that internal freedom’s cry of loss, against a world in which conformist society and zealous authorities, religious or otherwise, deem it criminal to think for yourself. In the final stanzas, the poem morphs into a plea to abandon dogma, and embrace the liberating uncertainties of our existence. It becomes an appeal to seize the future and fashion it in the likeness of this idealized past – a past in which we were free. Free to champion heresies. Free to flirt with blasphemy. Free to fearlessly tell our truth. 

I Revolt Because We Are: Marxism and the Case for a More Radical Ubuntu in the Face of Environmental Disaster

It is an open secret, a blaring announcement stretched to a whisper on the slowly-turning wheels of time: our world is edging towards environmental disaster. In a quest to prevent us from leaving an uninhabitable wasteland of a world behind, the communitarian African philosophy of Ubuntu has been proposed as an alternative ecological framework that ought to guide environmental policy. While these attempts to reframe the ecological debate are well-intentioned, in practice, the traditional Ubuntu ethic is insufficient (and even inconsistent) in a world where the dominant ideology is that of global capitalism. Nonetheless, the ethic, equipped with its radical egalitarian tenets, can inform an action plan that effectively tackles the crisis. This cannot be done without rethinking shallow interpretations of harmony and discord which lend themselves to a platitudinous status quo. In order to address the problem of environmental sustainability, a Revolutionary Ubuntu, reinforced by its Marxist elements, must be forged.

The case for Ubuntu is made by Dr. Edwin Etieyibo, a prominent voice on African philosophy (and my lecturer on the subject), in his paper The Ethical Dimension of Ubuntu and its Relationship to Environmental Sustainability. Etieyibo argues that Ubuntu, in its nature as a communitarian school of thought, equips us with an alternative approach that allows for sustainable use of the earth’s resources. This, he says, is in contrast to individualistic capitalist models which commoditise the global ecosystem and serve to exacerbate ecological disasters like global warming and climate change. These sentiments are by no means misguided. However, if Ubuntu is to become a credible alternative, it is necessary to locate it within the current socio-political, and global economic, context. While some tenets of Ubuntu, upon which Etieyibo places emphasis, are indeed necessary to achieve environmental sustainability, they are not sufficient. The classical Ubuntu ethic, for as long as it stubbornly clings to its distaste for confrontation, is incapable of indicting the perpetrators of ecological degradation. For the current, worsening state of the ecosphere was not an inevitable one – it did not simply happen. The degradation of nature is not a feature of nature. The scientific evidence is unambiguous, and damning. The current ecological disaster was caused. An opponent has been dancing around the ring unchallenged, winning round after round by default. If the proponents of the Ubuntu ethic wish to change this, we cannot continue to aimlessly shadowbox.

What sort of muscle, then, do we have to work with? The Ubuntu ethic is defined as an attitude which prioritises the ‘greater good’, through what Etyiebo calls ‘caring and sharing’. Within the Ubuntu ethic, the promotion of harmony, and reduction of discord, is paramount. Classically, mediation and conciliation are seen as superior to conflict and confrontation. This is crucial (and indeed, classical Ubuntu’s crucial caveat).

If we are to allow ourselves a little more analytic indulgence: ‘Caring’ is similar to the principle of autonomy in Kant’s categorical imperative and is defined as a form of solidarity, which encourages individuals to make the ends of others their own, to adopt one another’s struggles. In summary, I shall define it as a rallying cry: I struggle because you are struggling; I revolt because we are. ‘Sharing’ concerns an attitude towards resources – to share is to recognise that one’s resources may be needed more by others and to redistribute them in accordance with that need. If the definition of ‘caring’ is extended to include adopting the ends of the common good as one’s own (after all, within Ubuntu, I am because we are), then this tenet of the Ubuntu ethic is best summed up by the popular communist dictum, first used by Louis Blanc and later popularised by Marx – “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

Ubuntu’s explicit reverence for community is in stark contrast to the dominant ideology in the ‘developed’ world, which is one of neoliberal capitalism – built on the idea that if individuals pursue their selfish interests, it will result in economic growth which will better the lives of all. Adam Smith argued, in his work of the same name, that social and economic inequality is necessary to increase the  Wealth of Nations. It is within this dispensation that our current ecological disaster locates itself. It is in opposition to this dispensation that our proposed solution must be defined.

The opponent is in his corner, the ring has been readied – now, finally, let’s step onto the canvas.

Lovably-obscene Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that problems of environmental sustainability are problems of the ‘commons’, where individuals and corporations are attempting to privatise the “foundation of our being”. This tendency has placed undue strain on the earth’s limited resources. Its endemic myopia is poisoning the planet. The commons, which, in tandem with the community, is foundational within Ubuntu, is being gravely neglected. Indeed, the capitalist order is not simply unhelpful in achieving the goal of environmental sustainability; in its free market manifestation, it directly opposes it.

In her relatively-recent book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein puts forward the argument that problems of climate change are “more grounded in capitalism than they are in carbon.” For example, Klein cites the apparent conundrum surrounding fossil fuels and  argues that, if we simply disregard the free market gospel, by reigning in corporations, rebuilding local economies and bolstering working class representation, we can wean ourselves off unsustainable fossil fuels. In prioritising growth, and making the implicit assumption that growth can continue indefinitely, global capitalism is to blame for much of our impending ecological disaster. The problem is structural and hence, according to Klein, requires us to radically rethink the current economic system. This is where the departure from the classical Ubuntu ethic occurs, since what is necessary to apply it in a meaningful way is a confrontation with the cold gears of the global capitalist machine.

To believe that an approach grounded in Ubuntu will be adopted by the ruling classes voluntarily is to capitulate to excessive idealism. Changes in the dynamic between individuals will have no impact upon environmental sustainability if the dynamic between power and people remains unchanged. Interpersonal caring and sharing means little if a small group of individuals are allowed to act against the common interest, while the wealth of nations is not shared among the people of those nations. The adoption of the ethic of caring and sharing should not be supererogatory for the bourgeoisie, the class which owns and controls the means of production. Allowing the ideals of Ubuntu to guide environmental policy will require the creation of a dispensation where the ‘commons’ is prioritised. In order for a culture of the ‘public good’ to be created, structures which concentrate resources in the hands of a few individuals need to be dismantled.

Those allied with the current capitalist order will question whether it is truly necessary to radically reform, or dismantle it in order to achieve environmental sustainability. The response lies in the nature of the free market they defend. In a climate where success is gauged principally in terms of profit and economic growth, while no serious consideration is given to solidarity and the protection of the commons, there is no good market reason to promote environmental sustainability. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, argued against private property by pointing out that it has already been done away with for the vast majority of the population. For as long as the bourgeoisie, which is unaccountable to the community, is capable of destroying the commons through its use of the means of production, the global ecosystem is at the mercy of a minority. The current order needs to be radically restructured because it is unacceptable that the fate of the commons is dependent upon the whims of the bourgeoisie.

Real world problems require us to confront the structures and systems of the real world. To fail in this project is to fall prey to fallacies of detached abstraction and excessive idealism. What is argued for here is neither a new Maoist or Leninist Party, nor a repeat of the horrors of Stalinism, but rather a radical reaffirmation of the egalitarian principles which underlie both Marxism and Ubuntu. This can only work if the latter is isolated from its tendencies of non-confrontation and made to take a stand against the reckless capitalism that has been systematically degrading the environment. We cannot settle for an illusion of harmony within a system of normalised, deceptive discord.

With each passing round, our absence from the ring strengthens our opponent and weakens the ecosphere. The bell has been rung by the heavy hand of capital. For the sake of the commons, the people must reclaim the arena.

 

image

Rebellion and the Rock of Imperial Rome

Kaipha stirred. The clattering of shackles had roused him from the restlessness of his sleep. Peering through half-opened eyes, he saw the faceless figures of his fellow inmates, the pale yellow stars upon their shoulders barely visible, as the sun rose on the concentration camp that sat on the outskirts of Rome 1. Ordinarily, they would be floating in the limbo between sleep and wakefulness, dreading a return to another day of bondage. But that morning was different. Dread had been washed from their eyes by a torrent of new hope. Whatever the day before him held, Kaipha knew that it would either end with him as a free man, or a corpse. He knew too that these men, his comrades, had entrusted him with a sacred duty. Swiftly, he gathered himself and walked to the barred doors at the entrance to their cell. The men eagerly awaited the signal from their leader. It came. The guards were changing shifts. The time for emancipation had arrived.

A group of around ten skin-draped skeletons now assembled in the centre of their small cell. Regardless of their frail bodies, a strength of will radiated from their huddle – a strength derived from rage. They were not always slaves, although their former lives were ones of serfdom. Memories of oppression by the Roman occupiers – and some of their fellow Jews who colluded with Rome to preserve the occupation – fuelled this rage.  It verbally manifested now, in outbursts of the Aramaic that was the tongue of almost every Judean in first century Palestine. Upon every emphatic syllable hung the phantom of a failed revolution, ready to be resurrected. As the survivors of the mass-slaughter of their people in Jerusalem, the men were intent on bringing justice to Emperor Vespasian, who, by the hand of his son, had razed their Sacred Temple 2. However, they first needed to shatter their shackles.

The passion of their proclamations died down as Kaipha gave them another signal from the cell door. As the sound of the Roman soldier’s heavy boots on the cobblestone outside became louder, the leader dropped back to join his men. The soldier soon appeared at the door of their cage, muttering about his disgust at these lestai – the common derogatory label given to the Jewish people who refused to be tamed by the sword of Rome. Literally, it meant ‘bandit’ – one intent on taking up arms against the occupying state. With this premonition lingering upon his lips, he swung the door open and entered to commence with the humiliation of his subject-people. “Today,” he thought, “I am Vespasian.”

As was the case when they stood in the ruins of the Sacred City decades before, the lestai were ordered to present themselves as livestock before the imperial state. After stripping them naked and reasserting Rome’s dominion, the guard would lead the slaves off to slowly break their backs erecting grand edifices in the capital city. As the soldier approached the men, Kaipha swore that he would break that routine. He slowly nodded at an older man praying in the corner of the spartan room. Without warning, the man murmuring Hezekiah’s Prayer 3 charged at the tormenting soldier, impaling himself upon the legionnaire’s spear. Seizing upon the shock of the disarmed guard, Kaipha led the other men forward to gag the soldier and unleash their pent-up rage, savoring blow by blow, upon this symbol of their oppression. A few moments later, the legionnaire’s blood oozed onto the floor to mix with that of the martyr he had deemed subhuman. Kaipha had stabbed Vespasian – and the tyrant was slowly dying.

The group now moved quickly towards the outside of their hellish jail. Strangely, they encountered no resistance as they ran through the dimly-lit corridors towards freedom. Any rational mind would have questioned this anomaly, but the mind of a zealot has a strained relationship with reason. The mind of one overwhelmed by war and new-found freedom has discarded it almost entirely. A large wooden door now stood between them and the outside world. They burst into the sunlight, unprepared for what they would then encounter…

A battalion of heavily-armed soldiers now confronted the ragtag group of rebels. After a long moment of dreadful anticipation, Kaipha made his move. The insurgent leader moved towards the front of the group, ostensibly to beg the Roman masters to spare their lives. However, as he walked towards the commander of an army that had murdered his family and burnt his home, he was embraced as a brother. Without hesitation, the rest of the group was then brutally murdered, staring into the hard, indifferent eyes of the leader who had betrayed them for a place among the aristocracy.

Rome had lost a soldier to the Plot of Kaipha, but in the calculus of power, it was a price well worth paying. As the story of Kaipha the Traitor spread in the concentration camps and Diaspora, mistrust was deepened within a people who once dared to challenge the tyranny of Rome. Under the weight of this maddening mistrust, solidarity crumbled. For generations, liberation 4 would fail to advance beyond the whispers of those too crippled by fear of betrayal to raise their voices. Vespasian was alive – and Kaipha was the rock upon which he built a psychological occupation.

 

Raees Noorbhai

 

Notes

1 It is a well-documented historical fact that the Roman Empire forced captured citizens of conquered nations into slavery. Indeed, this cruel practice of systematic servitude was tragically common during antiquity. The sacking of Judea during the Jewish Revolt of the first century was no exception to this norm. However, the use of concentration camps to house slaves is, to my knowledge, undocumented. This, as well as other details concerning the historical context in which the story is written and the plot-line of the story itself, is the product of artistic license. It would also be unbecoming of me to not acknowledge the substantial contribution made by Reza Aslan’s work, Zealot, to my understanding of the politics of the period in which I set this story.

2 In early 70 AD, after a brutal crackdown in Galilee, Titus, the son of Vespasian, besieged Jerusalem. For more than 6 torturous months, infighting and the siege led to starvation and widespread death. When the Romans breached the weakened defenses, they were merciless. Scores of Jerusalem’s people were murdered and the city was razed and plundered, along with its Second Temple, seen as sacred by the Jews of Judea. Those who survived stood humiliated in the ruins of Jerusalem and were taken as slaves by the Romans.

3 Hezekiah’s Prayer refers to an incident in that anthology of mythology popularly known as the Hebrew Bible, where Hezekiah, King of Judah, beseeches the god of Israel to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians.

It’s noteworthy that the liberation mentioned here is not a departure from the problematic politics of religion. The occupation that the Jewish people rose up against was certainly oppressive, but the state which the revolt aimed to establish would almost certainly spawn a new oppression – through its implementation of religious law and exclusion of those who did not belong to the dominant faith. Of course, this does not justify the occupation, but the short story is not a defense of the Revolt’s ideals either. Put simply: had it succeeded, the Revolt would’ve placed itself in the cross-hairs of a revolution birthed by the gentile cry for equality.

Contextualising Cosmic Danger

asteroid_7

We all delight in some measure of fright. There is some allure in taunting the reaper, something endearing about the dark, deserted and blood-stained that we can’t quite explain. But it’s there. This weekend, fittingly around Halloween, our appetite for horror was indulged by yet another close encounter with a giant mass of rock hurtling through space. If it were to collide with earth, the impact of a meteorite this size would quite literally threaten our species with extinction. However, is such a scenario probable? To what degree has that appetite for horror caused us to distort the degree of danger posed by close encounters of the cosmic kind?

The object in question this time is called Asteroid 2015 TB145, although that may prove to be a misnomer. Some within the scientific community have begun to postulate that TB145 is in fact a comet. As a point of clarity: asteroids are the rocky remnants of planetary formation and orbit the sun, primarily in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Comets, on the other hand, formed beyond the frost line, far from the warm embrace of our star. They are hence composed of rocky nuclei, blanketed in layers of ice which, upon approaching the sun, birth brilliant tails of dust and plasma. TB145 conspicuously lacks this characteristic coma, pointing to the conclusion that if our visitor is indeed a comet, the sun has eaten into its envelope of ice. The traveller from exile at the fringes of our solar system has, this time around, arrived as a corpse.

At closest approach, TB145, nicknamed Spooky, will pass a mere 480 000 km from our home planet. This ‘close shave’  is what has motivated the recurring narrative of earth narrowly escaping global devastation. Granted, on a scale of Astronomical Units, light-years and parsecs, the distance is indeed relatively miniscule, in much the same way that Alpha Centauri is a relatively close star. However, in assessing the danger, it is imperative to remember that on this astronomical scale, Earth is indeed a speck. To illustrate: suppose that Spooky’s orbit crossed into the space between its actual closest approach and the earth. The odds that it would, at random, collide with the earth can be conceptualised by imagining a ‘dartboard’ of radius 480 000 km, with earth as the bull’s eye. The probability is therefore approximated by taking the ratio of the area of the earth to that of the cosmic ‘dartboard’. From figure 1.1, it is apparent that this probability lies far below 1%. The danger, it seems, has been gravely overstated.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1

Admittedly, this model is simplistic and fails to account for the intricacies of celestial mechanics. The probability yielded then, is merely an order of magnitude approximation. It aims to illustrate the tremendous vastness  and pervading emptiness of space – the truth that, in the cosmos, the void reigns supreme. However, even when accounting for these shortcomings, it is evident that the chances of a collision within the closest approach are overwhelmingly slim. Moreover, Spooky – and scores of others like it – were on trajectories which we knew would never result in an impact with our home planet. Declaring that each one of these ‘nearly hit’ us is therefore akin to standing a hundred meters from the edge of a motorway and yelling that you narrowly avoided an accident each time a car whizzed by. When placed in proper context, the sensationalism sounds somewhat like the panicked ramblings of a paranoid mad man. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Much of the reason why events of this kind are met with alarm is not because the probability of impact is high, but rather because the consequences of such an improbable impact are so extraordinarily dire. Aware of the fate of those great reptilian beasts who roamed and ruled this planet before us, we know too well that an impact may lead to our extinction – an abrupt end to the anthropocene. Efforts, informed by data from objects like TB145, are underway to craft protocols that deal with the possibility of an asteroid impact. From nuclear detonation to a more understated, trajectory-altering nudge, plans are being developed to save earth from catastrophe. For the mad man, in all his crazed rambling, speaks in the spirit of a threat that, while improbable, is real: we simply cannot afford to find ourselves in the headlights of a car that has veered off the road.

These close encounters then, are a reminder from the cosmos that we cannot afford to neglect our space program, if we wish for our species to survive. They nudge us forward into a space-faring age, in which the repository of human potential will not be concentrated on a single planet. Perhaps most importantly, they provide us with a potent reminder of the vulnerability of our terrestrial home and allow us to contemplate our perilous existence upon it. As each asteroid streaks past earth, the message sent to us is clear: our cosmic neighbourhood, while alluring, is hostile to human life. With each near miss, our resolve to preserve this planet should be bolstered. We must realise that these threats of an existential kind needn’t come from the heavens.

Mesmerised by profit, we continue to deplete earth’s resources. Recklessly, we fuel a runaway greenhouse effect that drives climate change and global warming. Nuclear and biological weapons continue to sit in our stockpiles, straining for release. For as long as these characteristics of the human age continue to exist, the destruction of our species is in no need of any help from a rogue asteroid. So the next time the excessive panic machine begins to rumble, remember that after the threat has disappeared into the void, a danger lingers to our continued existence on this planet. And it springs directly from the sins of our species.

Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

wits protest

The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.