Police inspect the site of arson attack at the University of Johannesburg on Monday. Picture: JULIA MADIBOGO
Police inspect the site of arson attack at the University of Johannesburg in May. Picture: JULIA MADIBOGO

A BURNT law library may confirm a great irony — that, at a time ripe for campaigns to help SA escape its past, there are few voices pointing to a new way of doing things.

A few arsonists do not condemn an entire movement. But some who sympathise with student protest have defended the burning — a sign that a movement that began as a vital voice for change may be running out of useful things to say.

The student protest movement began as an important call for universities to escape the past. Whether students were campaigning for a black voice on campuses or for education costs that did not force them into poverty, they were highlighting a reality in need of change. When universities began taking in students who had been excluded by apartheid, they did little to change how they operated so that they could enable the new students to reach their potential. As one educationist put it, universities expected the students to change so that they could stay the same.

The student demonstrations forced universities to look at how to change to meet students’ needs. But the protesters are no longer shaping these discussions. While it seemed for a while that the protests would produce a clear voice for change, little is left of this promise except a demand for an end to fees, which may well attract less support each time it is repeated.

Instead of a campaign that spells out a programme for change, we are left with voices that, as Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University pointed out, refuse to accept that it is possible to want change at universities and to condemn book burning.

This failure to produce a reasoned voice for change capable of inspiring people is not confined to universities. The reality against which students rebelled, the expectation that people who were excluded must fit in with ways of doing things that repeat past patterns, is mirrored in an economy still divided between insiders and outsiders.

Again, the voices of change are stilled. It was not long ago that we were awash with ideas for economic reform. Today, with the possible exception of the minimum wage debate, the only voices complaining of the insider-outsider divide are those of patronage politicians, whose rhetoric seeks to disguise the reality that they have no problem with an economy that excludes many as long as it includes them.

Ironically, opportunities to press for change in this society are greater than they have been for a long time because politics is now competitive and, for the first time, politicians need to listen to citizens if they want re-election. The most obvious places to begin campaigns for change are Johannesburg and Tshwane, where no party commands a majority and all council decisions are up for grabs.

In other councils, pressure on politicians to attract and retain support may not be as direct but there too are opportunities for change. But there is little sign yet that the opportunity will be seized by campaigners eager to see cities become sites of experiments that could point the way to change.

There are, as always, exceptions — they include well-thought-out campaigns for racial equality in schools and the opening of urban land to the poor, so that the excluded can live closer to the economic action. But they are a rarity and their effect on other areas of social life is limited.

One sign of the absence of new ideas that can catch people’s imagination is that those who claim to champion change draw such sparse crowds to their events: South Africans today are mobilised by those who open malls, not those who float ideas.

This is doubly ironic because ideas that challenge the way society is organised have always been part of this country’s political life — this, of course, makes it more puzzling that debate now centres not on how to change patterns that have brought us patronage politics, damaging conflicts and continued poverty for many, but on how to make them work better.

The reason for this silence mentioned in a previous column — that so much effort is devoted to fighting patronage politics that the wider issues are lost — can explain only part of what is happening. Another reason may be that so much of the pressure for change has been tied up in the fight against apartheid that thinking has yet to adapt to the new realities of a society in which old patterns take less obvious forms.

And it may also be that social media, hailed as powerful tools for change, are obstacles both because activists see Twitter as a substitute for organising and because they make it easier for people to talk only to those with whom they agree, giving them little reason to find new ideas.

Whatever the reason, the country needs clear voices for change. The problems that occupy the debate are symptoms of a deeper reality: that what has changed is not what is done but who is doing it. And they will persist until new voices again bring new ideas.

Friedman is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.