So who pays in a free society?

Saturday, 1 March 1997

In retrospect, all of us are wise

BACK in 1980, at the height of that round of student protest, the students at the University of Durban-Westville -- myself included -- were milling around the campus quadrangle saving the world.

It was hot work. We had arrived in the morning, played cards in the cafeteria, marched over to the library to make sure none of the sell-outs were actually studying, and attempted to toyi-toyi.

The heat of the Durban noonday sun was now taking its toll. Most of the regular crowd of student leaders were now hoarse from whipping us into a frenzy. So it fell to anonymous stragglers from the crowd -- myself included again -- to take up the cudgels (the megaphone) and bring democracy to the land.

"Viva Nelson Mandela, Viva!" I shouted. The crowd responded "Viva!"

"Viva Oliver Tambo, Viva!" I went on. "Viva!" The crowd responded.

"Viva Gatsha Buthelezi, Viva!" I added. "Viva!" said they.

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"Aha!" I exclaimed with a grin. The crowd broke out into a rumble of confusion. Many of those who had shouted in response looked around sheepishly.

Because Buthelezi was a hated name on campus then. "Gatsha Buthelezi, voetsek, voetsek, voetsek!" was the refrain of one of the toyi-toyi chants. But the crowd had blindly taken up the chant.

Crowds are stupid. Ordinarily civilised human beings do irrational things they would never consider attempting on their own.

They shout with one voice without being aware of what they are saying. They pelt soccer players with whatever missiles come to hand and attack supporters of rival teams. Shout "Fire" and they run lemming-like towards the nearest exit trampling all in their path.

That's why they terrify me. Even the lion flees in terror from the stampede of the herbivores.

So even though all of us gathered in that quadrangle were essentially a nice, well-meaning bunch, pity the poor sucker who had followed his parents' instructions to actually attend classes and study.

The rector and management called this "intimidation". I called it waving a red flag in front of many bulls.

There's a new round of protests sweeping our campuses today. Once again, students have taken to the streets. The toyi-toyi lives on. Police have moved in and the right are calling for them to beat the bejesus out of the students. Just like the old days.

This made me blink in disbelief. Wait a second... I thought that we had settled that argument? Last time I looked, we had a free society, democratically-elected government, a commitment to an educational system where academic merit would prevail...

Then I realised what the problem was. These guys who have now taken over the campuses think that a "free society" is one in which they do not have to pay.

Interesting argument, that. Philosophically, I have no problem with their reasoning. The question that needs to be asked is, who should be picking up the bill?

Today's student has the answer to that as well! The Johannesburg Stock Exchange, of course! They marched through the streets of Africa's financial capital to nail their colours to the mast. Business must pay! That's where the money is!

But out there is a country that is creaking under the weight of unemployment, crime and a crippling national debt incurred by years of apartheid mismanagement.

Bearing that weight, Atlas-like, are the men and women who put in years of sacrifice in the hope that their kids will graduate someday. Now, many of those kids will not.

So, who really pays?