Fire, freedom and disrepair

The wave of violent protests at South African universities and the frequent use of fire as a weapon have provoked much analysis of fire as an idiom for political change in South Africa. In January when the students at the University of Cape Town raided the portraits adorning the dining hall at Fuller House and set fire to them, an article in The Economist carried the headline “Whiteness Burning”.

But since then much more than whiteness has been burning. An administration building and a science centre were burned to the ground at North-West University (Mafikeng campus), and a 1,000-seater auditorium as well as the computer room and study centre above it were gutted at the University of Johannesburg. The damage was estimated at R100 million (£4.6 million or US$6.8 million).

A building was torched at the University of Stellenbosch and even the iconic hub of the struggle, Fort Hare University, was blockaded by burning tyres during a protest before its centenary celebrations. The University of the Witwatersrand narrowly thwarted an attempt by two individuals with gas canisters to set fire to the law library inside the Oliver Schreiner School of Law building.

Permanent crisis

Aside from the damage, higher education institutions are spending large sums on enhanced security while looking for other ways to reduce costs to cope with the government’s 2015 pledge not to increase tuition fees. Money that could be spent on expanding student accommodation or to address other student grievances is diverted to protect the university infrastructure from some of the students who use it.

The University of Cape Town recently announced a policy of voluntary attrition to cut costs. The most experienced and knowledgeable staff will be encouraged to take early retirement. Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, has warned that such a tense climate is not conducive to the quiet enterprise of study and research and therefore South African universities risk becoming glorified colleges.

Meanwhile, Andile Mngxitama, leader of the Black First Land First movement, has applauded the arson attacks as the drivers of decolonisation. There is a growing sense that a number of seeming anarchists are determined to keep South African universities locked in a state of permanent crisis.

Even further education colleges and schools have not been spared. The library and other buildings at the Sekhukhune Technical Vocational Education and Training College were set alight. Angry residents in Limpopo Province burned down over 20 schools because they were dissatisfied when the courts refused to overturn a decision by the Municipal Demarcation Board that placed their community under a neighbouring municipality.

From decolonisation to destruction

Gareth van Onselen writes that fire is a metaphor for the broader problems in South Africa and that the nation is indeed burning. Decolonisation has given way to destruction, as the past can be erased or cleansed by fire. Little energy seems to be devoted to what comes next and how institutions may be reconstructed from the rubble.

Beyond the university, fire has a darker side, when foreigners are set ablaze during xenophobic riots. Recently a woman at a bus stop and two businessmen who were robbed were doused with petrol and set aflame by their assailants.

In 1987 Winnie Mandela infamously proclaimed: “With our matchboxes and our necklaces we shall liberate”. As far back as the 1950s anti-colonial movements in southern Africa have resorted to fire and, in particular, the burning of schools to advance their cause.

In Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), schools in the Northern Province were frequently burned down by members of the United National Independence Party. In fact, it was a vicious and prolonged period of unrest in 1963, which included several arson attacks on schools for African children, that ultimately forced the hand of the British government and opened the path for the independence of Northern Rhodesia in 1964.

In the late 1970s secondary school students in South Africa embarked on school boycotts directed against the apartheid regime, chanting the motto “Liberation first, education later”. Decolonisation entailed sacrifice and many colonised people damaged their countries and societies in the process.

Every year of school lost because of arson in Northern Rhodesia or boycotts in South Africa contributed to a generation deprived of education, but the goals were clear: independence, majority rule and freedom.

Fire as weapon

To discover the roots of fire as a weapon, though, one has to delve further back, beyond the late colonial history of the liberation movements, to the time of the initial subjugation. The burning of villages was a favoured tactic used by British colonial authorities to punish recalcitrant chiefs who refused to pay taxes or provide sufficient men for forced labour.

In 1896, John Bell, a British officer in the Northern Province, wrote: “As the people had given evidence of some insubordination, I set the village on fire and returned to Ikawa.” Many villages in north-eastern Nigeria were burned down after the Igbo women’s war. Such collective punishment was rife across the British expire.

Yet fire is ultimately self-destructive. A village that was burned to the ground and whose livestock was either looted or destroyed could not pay its taxes. The men might have been forced into labour, but famine would have ensued and the village was more likely to have perished than recovered. The purpose of collective punishment was to set an example, to induce fear and discourage other chiefs and villages from disobedience.

Fire was an effective weapon for the colonialists and later the freedom fighters. Thus those who view the current spate of protests as part of a second struggle for liberation may regard the use of fire as reasonable.

But for the higher education institutions, fire is self-destructive because when the fight for decolonisation or free education tips towards demolition, then the baby is thrown out with the bath water. It will be a difficult task for a middle-income country to recover from such a costly struggle and the gains of the past 20 years may be lost.

The end goals of this new struggle are vague and the agenda of the protests keeps shifting. Before the higher education system is gradually broken beyond repair, students need to assess the costs and benefits of making the university the frontline in another struggle.

Fire is an archaic tool; it is a dangerous weapon and there is little victory in the ashes. Thus far there is little sign of patience for reflection, and the future of the higher education system is in jeopardy.

Zenobia Ismail is a Gates Cambridge Scholar, doing a PhD in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. She was formerly a manager of Afrobarometer, which conducts surveys across Sub-Saharan Africa.