Tag Archives: Revolution

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.

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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.