Let’s pay tribute to the students of 2016

We owe them an apology, and more than an apology

Photo of protesting students

The older generation should apologise to the students for failing to defuse the time-bomb of inequality, says the writer. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

By Jacques Joubert

17 October 2016

In 1976 my mother hid radical young school students in our house in Welkom from the security police. Their fiery rhetoric and intermittent stone throwing could not dampen her deep compassion for their struggle for human dignity and advancement.

In 2016, I write from the perspective of my generation. We are somewhere between 40 and 60 years old and generally successful. We are no longer only white.

We tend to blame all our country’s problems on President Jacob Zuma and corruption. Unaware that in doing so, we set the stage for a zero sum game.

For us to win, Zuma must lose, which means he goes to jail. For Zuma to win we must lose, which means we get to be ruled by a kleptocrat.

Some in my generation are hopeful that the anger of our students will somehow be deflected away from them to Zuma.

They underestimate the sophistication of the student movement.

The students have identified the educational system as the problem and will not be distracted from their aim to transform it. The entire system and not only Zuma, is in their sights.

This appals most of my generation. Not because we are strong, but because we feel helpless. When the students demand transformation, my generation fears redundancy.

Transfixed by the students’ fiery rhetoric about Fanon, Biko and black consciousness, we make assumptions about what they really want. It is what conflict does to the brain. What they really want may however be far more nuanced than their rhetoric. It is not inconceivable that we are not as far apart as their slogans may suggest. It is in this space that a mediator explores what is really important to the protagonists.

Then of course there are many non-protesting students who mostly come from privileged backgrounds. They too are traumatised about what is happening on our campuses, alienated and unsure about their futures.

They should join the student movement and help define our national future.

As for the protesters, they play directly into the hands of the system when they resort to violence. They should keep their eyes open for agents provocateurs who wish to sabotage their movement.

How different could it be however, if our generation were to apologise to all students (protesters and non-protesters) for doing far too little to address the time bomb called inequality in South Africa and the impact it has had on their education and their lives?

Such an apology could begin to free my generation from our country’s dark apartheid past. It would validate our students and help restore their trust in us.

The apology is also due to non-protesting and so-called privileged students for the disruption of their studies as a result of my generation’s failure to adequately address the humiliating inequality that still persists in our country.

Of course, more than an apology is called for.

The author and futurist HG Wells in 1935 said human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. To win this race, our generation needs to step up as no generation has ever done before.

Here is just one idea.

What if free high speed Internet were brought to everyone, beginning with the poorest in our country?

This could provide education and online training opportunities at a fraction of the cost of our current cumbersome and costly education system. Every third shack in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town already has a satellite dish for DSTV. Imagine every household receiving a basic computer such as the Raspberry P3. They cost less than R 700 and can easily be connected to a television.

South African billionaires together are worth 31 billion dollars (R434 billion) according to Africa Ranking. They need to look at the poor with different eyes to help fund a digital revolution and so does my generation.

Someone, recently, surreptitiously set up high speed Internet in Tshwane. What happened blew his mind. Within days the residents were going online, one after the other like a runaway veld fire. He analysed the data, perhaps thinking they would be trawling porn sites.

Guess what they were searching for: employment opportunities!

The data is revealing and exciting.

Desperate to improve their lives, the residents are looking for opportunities and not for handouts.

One more racist myth of my generation bites the dust.

Free Internet access can create nearly infinite opportunities to boost our economy as never before. Our institutions of learning may then expand to offer quality free online education, using virtual and augmented reality to make the antiquated model of “lecturer in front of classroom” obsolete.

The model, using cutting-edge technology to democratise and demonetise education, could be South Africa’s next gift to the world.

Let us make it a fitting tribute for the students of 1976 and the students of 2016, who were willing to sacrifice their all, for dignity and the future of our nation.

It is also a low cost, high reward solution for the crisis in our education system.

We must cast our dreams far beyond our President. It’s the only way to move our country forward.

Jacques Joubert is a mediator and vice-chair of Mediation in Motion, a not-for-profit organisation that connects mediators with clients. He writes in his personal capacity. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.