I’m an Equalizerby Sydelle Willow Smith / 15.07.2011
Standing outside Parliament off Roeland Street on Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by fifty or so protesting schoolchildren and a group of marshalls from Equal Education, my thoughts wandered, historical images of the 1976 uprisings and the songs that served its soundtrack playing through my head. Protests in post apartheid South Africa carry similarities with the historical moments of this country’s struggle that we have come to know so well, but only certain similarities. The cries of Amandla! Awethu, and the song “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy – that’s why, I’m a Socialist (aptly changed to Equalizer for this protest), I’m an Equalizer, I’m an Equalizer” amongst others, cut through my thoughts as I immersed myself into flashbacks of apartheid that I learnt about in Grade 10 history classes. Classes orchestrated by an unhinged teacher with a metal plate in his head – a war injury from Angola – in a public high school decked out with netball courts, a rugby field, a swimming pool, computer rooms, a library and various other amenities that most of the school children present at this vigil have never had the privilege of experiencing.
I still have a few acquantainces from that high school, brimming with amenities, who seem to suffer from apartheid apathy. Perhaps partly due to overexposure to images and video clips of the riots, the bloodshed, the raised fists and heroic faces of a young Mandela, Thambo, Sisulu, Biko and Huddleston forever etched in freedom rhetoric and facebook filled brains. Maybe they just find it all passé and boring. I pondered over all these thoughts, distracted every now and then as an excited supporter would drive by hooting their horn in support of the protest, fist raised, fueling the enthusiasm of the school children. Feeling the rhythms of the strangely familiar songs wash over me in an ironically nostalgic way, I wandered over and started speaking to a girl whose school uniform informed me that she attended Hector Pieterson High School in Khayelitsha. I asked her why she was protesting during her school holidays, and she told me that her school lacked basic facilities such as a library, emphasizing that she had grown tired of waiting for empty promises. Many other kids I met shared the same views, their energy as they danced and sang never subsiding in the four or five hours I spent hanging around them, clicking away at my camera.
Equal Education’s Facebook page announced the call for supporters to come and participate in a candlelit vigil outside parliament on Tuesday. According to Equal Education (EE), the vigil formed part of a series of general protests for basic norms and standards in schools to be met. The Education Norms and Standards are a set of regulations that establish a benchmark for physical infrastructure across schools in South Africa including amenities that are presently lacking in a large majority of schools across the country. Basics like access to electricity, water, fencing, and functioning libraries (over 400 schools in the Eastern Cape are still made of mud).
The Norms and Standards policy was due to be implemented by the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, on the 1st of April. This deadline was not met: the reason given was that approval from provincial MECs was needed in order to adopt this official policy. However, according to the South African Schools Act, the Minister actually only needed to consult with MECS to implement the policy, she does not need their permission. So the policy could have been adopted, instead schoolchildren across South Africa having to bear the brunt of the Ministers’ indecision. These points were explained to me by Kathryn Scheinder one of the many leaders of Equal Education influenced by a childhood spent at Habonim, a camp held for Jewish kids in Onrus that is famous for it’s social activist conscience. The leaders of EE have been fueling the fires of a new social activism and the organisation has grown rapidly over the past two years, with Zackie Achmat serving as a member of their board. The organization boasts over 1000 members, mostly in the Western Cape. Recently politicization/activism camps (partly inspired by Habonim) were held in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal. The consensus amongst Equal Education members (it costs R20 for school children to join), is that the reason the Norms and Standards Policy has not been adopted is largely due to the financial commitment it requires, a difficult responsibility for a government led by a political party infamously fraught with corruption these days.
Talking to another EE leader Doron Isaacs, I was informed that the police and parliament were threatening to remove the protesters, as their permit expired at 4 pm. They had applied to the city to hold the vigil over two nights, and were only given permission for one. Parliamentary officials approached the group, informing them of their need to vacate the premises. Isaacs and other EE marshalls consulted with the school children. It was decided consensually that while they would remove their tents, they would not move until their cause was officially acknowledged. A somewhat gentle tug of war began between police officials and EE leaders followed over the course of the next two hours. The media representation steadily increased as fears of arrest of the children grew.
When I asked various EE leaders, including Zackie Achmat, why the organization had decided to break their protest permit regulations, their response was that as the government had failed to acknowledge the norms and standards policy that aimed to serve the constitutional rights of school children – rights to a decent, basic education. Thus they felt it necessary to go above permit regulation to highlight that patience was wearing thin. As with the development of struggle tactics during apartheid (from pacifism to militant activism), so did Equal Education see the need to make a more forceful statement in order to be taken seriously. As the threat of arrest loomed over the protestors, the evening sky grew darker, and I grew tired of standing around. I am not a news photographer, nor a journalist, so it felt strange to be part of the pack of media “vultures” waiting for newsworthy action to happen.
In the end, the police opted to not arrest a group of protesting school children – perhaps as the act would serve as a violent recollective image of those old apartheid ones we know so well. Rather, they agreed to the terms of negotiation allowing the group to spend one more night of peaceful protest, eating fish and chips, sleeping in tents outside parliament. Seems as relations between civil society and the state may have really changed, in the old days media mongers like myself would have been enveloped in clouds of tear gas snapping away at the brutal retaliation. Instead I put my camera down and walked away, inspired by the enthusiasm of a passionate group of people fighting for their constitutional rights in a country born out of a powerful activist struggle.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.