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.