On a clear day in September 1989, police invaded the University of Cape Town. On the Jameson steps, members and supporters of the Black Students Society – the SA National Students Congress was banned, so the BSS had been quickly born in its place – were calling for racial segregation on beaches, buses, trains and other public spaces to end.
The police arrived, demanded that the students disperse, set off teargas canisters, shot rubber bullets and caused pandemonium.
After a while the students regrouped, leaders gave more fiery speeches, and the police set off the teargas again.
Again the students dispersed, threw some canisters back at the police, and later regrouped. And so it went.
Later that day, a student leader (if my memory serves me well it was a history major called Eddy Maloka) stood up and said it was time to go to the residences.
“This is not a surrender. This is a tactical retreat. We are going to reflect, recharge and come back with better and superior ways of engagement with these apartheid police,” he said.
He reminded the students that the struggle was not new. It had been waged over decades and centuries.
“This was a skirmish, not even a battle, in the greater struggle. The war continues,” he said.
The key words in that speech was that stepping back does not mean one has lost the war. It means taking time to refine one’s strategy and tactics.
This is what has been missing in the turmoil that has roiled our institutions of higher learning these past few weeks and, indeed, these past two years.
It is leadership, from top to bottom, that recognises that a skirmish is not the war.
Retreating from a battle does not mean losing the war. It is possible to retreat from one battle but still win the war.
Lack of leadership started with President Jacob Zuma, who last year caved in to student demands without a long-term game plan about how the issue would be resolved.
Did he really think the students would be satisfied with the crumbs of a 0% fee increase for last year only? Did he think the issue would not be repeated again this year?
For a man, who many say is a master strategist and tactician, he displayed none of these gifts on this issue. This year he has been even more wanting.
As the universities burnt, he arrived last Monday at the Fees Forum organised by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, read a statement and left.
No argument has ever been won by a leader talking down to his or her constituency.
Anyway, expecting leadership from Zuma is naive. So let’s look at the rest of society.
Nzimande knows that at the end of the day the question of a feefree education, now or in future, is one the government has to decide on and, indeed, lead on. Yet, faced with the task of saying to society that “the bucks stops with me and my fellow cabinet ministers”, he kicked the ball down the chute to the university principals.
They, today, face the wrath of students and the country. This is called abrogation of duty.
Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib or any of his counterparts cannot give the students a free education. It is not their decision to make.
Nzimande needs to lance the boil of anger and hate against Habib and other vice-chancellors by making it clear that ultimately the responsibility is his.
He needs to be a leader today and say so. The students should march to his office, and that of the ANC and the president, not to Wits University.
The sight of police at Wits picking up rocks, thrown at them by students, and throwing them back says something fundamental about our society – we do not know why we do what we do.
Those policemen do not realise that they demonstrated that they do not know why they were on that campus.
If there is any evidence that the 34 Marikana workers were murdered, it was just that scene at Wits. It showed the ugliness, the thoughtlessness, the violence embedded in our post-2009 policing stance.
A great failure of leadership – but not the greatest – is among the minority of students who continue to lead violent protests.
Wits University, in particular, has accepted the principle of free education. So have many other students and stakeholders. History is on the students’ and civil society’s side.
Real student leaders – and not Mcebo Dlamini, might I add – need to realise that the war (as it were) for a free education will be won. It is time to retreat, regroup, write examinations, return with a fresh strategy and new tactics.
Retreat is not defeat. Leaders know that.