There has been a disproportionate amount of criticism over the last years of students not acting exemplarily, demonstrating over trivia and general barbarism. Sound as the tirades may seem, they are very narrow and signify unlearnedness. I wish to justify why students have to go on peaceful and sometimes violent demonstrations.
History reveals that student demonstrations have been a tool that many (students, politicians and society) have used extensively to change phenomena or even courses of history. Demonstrations do not just happen; they are the last resort after dialogue has failed or where the other powerful party is very good at using their blind eye.
Recall how French students forced President Charles de Gaulle to call for new elections and reform the defunct educational system in the late 60s. Remember that it was students that brought Iran true sovereignty by holding those American hostages for 444 days teaching the then US president, Jimmy Carter, the meaning on the word “non-interference.” Students of The Rangoon colleges in Burma managed to force Ne Win, Sein Lwin and forced Maung Maung to move towards democracy in 1988.
Famous to many are the Soweto demonstrations against Afrikaans in public schools and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations against communist rule in 1989. They are thus not a new thing, these demonstrations.
Students do not just go on the rampage for anything; they are inspired by great men; Stephen Biko was a medical student when he started the Black Consciousness Movement; Nelson Mandela was booted out of Fort Hare University for organizing demonstrations. Students are also exposed to the ideas of Karl Marx who teaches resistance to top-down decisions, Che Guevara, Islamic militancy and even radicals like Peter Macintosh who believed that “peace is the diploma one gets at the cemetery.”
Malawian students take the model of the American Students for a Democratic Society (ASDS) where representative democracy is a farce and participatory democracy a virtue. One Frenchman Daniel Cohn Bendt, another model and a student of sociology was once taunted by politicians for being “a nobody,” but his revolution rocked the whole of France with workers joining in.
Coming to Malawi, one would surely look at university students as empty souls wanting to be filled with some kind of rightness. On the contrary, many students do whatever they do sober and it is after a general meeting where they decide on the best courses of action to take.
Nobody comes to blame the university administration or government and I know it’s because they only see the violence not the buildup. I don’t blame them but here is a cross section of some of the events that shook UNIMA in this millennium and notice the facts of the students’ cases.
In 2000 Mathews Chikaonda was appointed Minister of Finance and in his Ten Point Plan, he raised university fees from K1, 500 to K46, 000 arguing that university was a luxury and students should pay for it dearly. It was strange coming from a man whose career as we know it today sprung from the same university so students protested. The so called school calendar started to be affected by the time fees was reduced to K25, 000. Who do we blame?
2001 in December, Fanikiso Phiri was shot by a trigger happy police officer when folks were demonstrating against the hiked maize prices, Evison Matafale’s Death and the arrest of Opposition politician Nelson Shaba: all noble causes. When students protested Fanikiso’s death, the colleges were closed and opened two months later with the calendar suffering badly. Who do we blame?
2003 UDF supporter marching in favour of the much detested third term bill hurled insults at poly students calling them names, the students retaliated and the police joined the UDF supporters led by John Chikakwiya to destroy property at the poly including the precious DAF bus, who would not fight? Surprisingly the then principal suspended all students. A legal battle ensued and classes resumed, but time had gone and the calendar suffered. Who do we blame?
February 2004, a student died in his sleep but the administration allowed examinations to go ahead, infuriated students rioted, as many would do. The students were sent home only to be called in May to finish the exam, a thing that could have been settled by suspending exams until after the student’s burial. The calendar was not waiting and who do we blame again?
Delaying stationery allowance for example is a thing that happens yearly, why can’t the administration sit down and hasten the process? Every year students have to submit identity photos and apply for the loan, why not make it electronic? Why not do there paper work when the students are on holiday?
The university should learn to liaise with the students’ representatives, for example the holiday saga at Poly recently was communicated as a top-down decision by a single memo. Last year there was no mid-semester holiday and students took that as an insult hence the boycotting of classes, only if there were students in the secret meeting that they hold, the police would have a surplus of tear gas.
The French students of 1968 rioted because the university running systems were archaic, staffed with aging octa- and nonagenarians, maybe it’s the same thing that is plaguing Malawi. It seems the administrators think like in the Kamuzu era. The philosophy that the youths are the leaders of tomorrow is a farce because it implies that the elders should be the leaders now. Some youths are as competent as everyone else and the administrators should learn to consult with the youths because it is them that know the pressures and prerequisites of modernity.
The society should also understand dynamics of society, the students especially the social science ones, understand that the media have power so if they block the highway, for example, the media will report the issue directly to the relevant authorities with veto powers over the usually stubborn university administrators.
Many folks also make a lot of noise of changing the image of the university, I ask which university? University is a den of havoc where ideas are discussed without emotion or religion. Whatever the students decide is carefully cooked with engineers, business managers and journalist, lawyers and teachers of tomorrow in the midst. The students didn’t create the system, the system created the havoc.
Some of those who speak against the student demonstrations have done them and they can’t understand their younger counterparts. It’s a pity how folks forget.
Some riots are not even for the students sake, take the section 65 issue, some DPP party gurus booked the students a bus to go to parliament to help in pushing the budget through, the politicians then betray them and call them barbarians?
Society should also remember that most youths are just past puberty when they reach university so a flash of private parts or obscene words is but a good thing after all it’s a celebration of freedom from the strict home. When judging university students put yourself in their shoes: there are hormones rushing in their veins, there are ladies to impress and there is a little philosophy in their minds. They are like a goat just getting to terms with new horns.
Most of the folks that criticize have not been to college thus they posses no knowledge of what it is to be a university leader. The students are being trained to become leaders and if they are oppressed the oppression will trickle to the people they will oversee. In 1968 Mexican president ignored the demands of the students and what followed was the creation and widening of the poor-rich gap.
The students are held together by the mutilated national anthem sentence and it’s not likely to go anytime soon it goes: “join together all hearts as one thus will be free from fear.” University demonstrations are justified indeed.