I received a call today from John Maytham from Cape Talk.  It was a call to discuss the work I am doing, representing students, mainly from UJ, but also from UKZN, Stellenbosch and other universities around the country.  I’ve had a number of these interviews over the past year, but each time, I’ve been prepared for them, and have had the opportunity to don my “professional” hat, and discuss the work dispassionately.

Today’s call wasn’t recorded.  I didn’t have the pressure of knowing I was “beaming out” to the public.  There was an intimacy to it, aided in no small measure by John’s gentle approach, his empathy and his soft-spokenness.

He made me cry today.  Dammit! He made me cry.

I haven’t wept like that for a while.  Doing the work we do means that lawyers very often have to set aside emotion and be dispassionate in our approach.  That works for me most of the time.  Today was not that time.

It started with such a simple question “What is the root of your sympathy for the students?”

Nobody has asked me that. I hadn’t asked myself that question.

My initial response was legal positivism : the right to a fair trial, the right to the presumption of innocence, the right to due process…..And  then realisation of what it was which is keeping me here hit me. I do it because I am terrified of the consequences if I (and other legal practitioners) don’t.

What happens if we are not here to ensure that Administrative justice is achieved?

What happens if we are not here to assure these disempowered, often violated, young people that their voices will be heard?

What happens if we cannot intercede between them and the enormous legal resources which the universities have to throw at them?

But it is so much more than that, and it was only during this interview that I realised what it was: My sympathy lies in the fact that I can’t help thinking that the universities are reaping what they sowed.  When you refuse to listen, when you refuse to engage, when you refuse to treat students with dignity and respect, when you simply suspend, when you meet student protests with violence….you are creating the next Marikana.

I wake up at night from dreams of bullet-riddled bodies. The bodies of young men and women I know.  I know them and have come to respect them.  To love them.  And in my head I replay the sound of gunfire as it has rung out across our campuses.  So far, it has “only” been rubber bullets but will it stay that way?  And even rubber bullets have wreaked havoc, as in the case of the young UKZN student who had to have two surgically extracted from her leg, because she had the temerity to film SAPS protecting white monopoly capital.

Where is white capital in this? Why is this the government’s problem?  We KNOW that the money isn’t there.  It should be but it isn’t. Whether or not the reason is corruption, the bottom line is the government can’t.  I’m so tired of the hand-wringing at R5 000 a plate dinner parties, the pearl-clutching, the high-browed critique of these protests, the tut-tutting about Zuma’s new jet – all the time ignoring the grotesque salaries earned by corporate CEOs and the waxing fat on the cheap labour often performed by the parents of these self-same students they turn their noses up at.

These protests are the end result of the history of exclusion which white capital financed.  Which white capital embraced through colonialism and Apartheid.  Why is white capital not saying “This is what we can do?  This is how we can help?”

Do we need another Marikana before we start to call white capital to the party?

Why do I help the students?  Because society won’t.  Society finds it easier to dismiss them as violent antagonists against a democratic regime – a belief which belies the violence at the root of poverty. A belief which, at its heart says “you have the vote, what more do you want?”

These young people want dignity.  They want access to the economy.

They want a chance to prove society wrong.

I cried today.  But that is not what you should take from this story.  You should take from it the why.  Because those fears are real. Those fears are so very, very real.

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