Heritage month reminds us of the diversity of backgrounds – linguistic, family (clan) and religious – with which we are blessed, and it is fitting that we should celebrate them. Let us not forget, however, that the apartheid edifice was built upon contrived differences – race and socially engineered ethnic groups. These categories continue to exert too much influence over our thinking, as when they manifest themselves as ‘anti-Indian’ sentiment. Global rhetoric about the ‘war on terror’ may also lead to irrational religious prejudice. While we celebrate our individual heritage, let us also make an effort to understand that of ‘the other’ to promote much needed nation building. . In the process we shall discover that, as sixteenth century poet and mystic John Donne put it, no one is an island; we are all shaped by our common human history. Let us also celebrate that heritage, and build a nation which is a harmonious microcosm of it.
Despite it being an artificial category (we whites lost our pigment for biological reasons when we migrated to areas where the sun was scarce) race continues to rear its ugly head. Its meaning lies in its association with the gross exploitation which started at the beginning of the sixteenth century when colonial expansion began, especially in the form of slavery which was of a different order to that which taken place in recorded history. Because apartheid was about levels of economic exploitation based on race, and despite progress, we still have a long way to correct the imbalance. However, generalisations about racial groups, such as the recent debate about whether Indians were advantaged under apartheid relative to indigenous Africans, oversimplify matters, and obscure the fact that poverty was also widespread in Indian communities. Like other racial comparisons it also ignores the fact that the Bantustan system improved the financial status of many Africans, some of whom became extremely wealthy through their business deals. Of course our past is important in understanding the present, but what we should be asking is why we have not made more progress in righting its wrongs, especially in the crucial field of education, instead of shifting the blame on to other racial groups. Similarly, it is easier to blame whites for colonialism than demand answers about the continuation of migrant labour because of the failure to develop the labour reservoir reserves which were the rationale for colonialism.
Prejudice also manifests in media exchanges between Hindus and Muslims. Both of these groupings have played important roles in shaping the world as we know it today. India gave rise to probably our oldest pacifist movement, and it is to Indian mathematicians that we owe the concept of Zero. To Islam, the modern world owes a great debt of gratitude. It was the medieval Islamic scholars – including philosophers and scientists – who kept alive the work of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers when it had been lost to Europe in the dark ages, influencing authors and scientists such as Dante and Roger Bacon. The works of Ibn-Sinam, described as the greatest of their philosophers, impacted on the arguments of philosophers such as Thomas Acquinus. From the eighth century Bagdad was the seat of world learning. Eleventh century polymath and poet Omar Khayamm devised a calendar which was more accurate than the Gregorian one, and Moslem scientists influenced Christian thinking in Spain for seven centuries, probably impacting on the Renaissance. (Author Gavin Menzies also argues that China, as well as circumventing the world before Colombus, made an important contribution to the Renaissance)
Africa is, of course, our original home and racial melting pot. As a result of trade with the Mediterranean powerful states such as Ghana flourished while Europe was still in the dark ages. Trade between Asia and the continent – including East Africa – has been going on for millennia, as has intra-continental migration. Mating goes with migration, leading to the heterogenous population of today. There are no pure races : To use apartheid terminology, we are all’ coloureds’.
It was colonialism too which created the fixed ethnic identities we see in South Africa (and many other parts of the continent), which are a legacy of indirect rule refined by apartheid. Apartheid used a long discredited notion of culture, an offshoot of the scientific racism which led to the Nazi horrors, to try to justify its Bantustan policy. Unfortunately the groups it defined have assumed a life of their own, and, with our nation-building exercise seeming to have fallen away in recent years, tribalism rearing its ugly head all over the country, especially – because of political and economic dynamics – in KZN. While there is a tendency to generalise the term Zulu to all indigenous people in this province, it has no historical validity and other indigenous groupings include Bhaca, Hlubi and Thonga. There are also many Xhosa and Pondo residents, and intermarriage is common. King Shaka, a man of mythic proportions, is celebrated as a Pan-African icon and hero.
While we celebrate our cultural (shared practices and/or ideas) heritage we also need to learn from our recent past (and the experience of strife torn societies all over the world) : Culture should never be used to garner political support, or to justify the control of political and economic resources. We need to put nation-building back on our agenda.


‘Our forefathers were not heard until they went on strike, and retaliated by burning and demolishing stuff to get their voices heard……Our fathers attained democracy by acting out, and we will get the #feestofall by acting out’. These sentiments, expressed by UKZN commerce student Simangele Mbanjwa in a recent media opinion piece, are a sad indictment of the way in which using violence in protests against injustice and corruption has become a norm. However, the reference to previous generations attaining democracy by ‘acting out’ is a gross oversimplification since the lives of black people under apartheid, and trivialises the struggles they engaged in, cannot be compared with the challenges university students are now facing. Ironically, all evidence points to much of the pre-1994 protest violence, including the burning and demolishing of what was then the University of Natal property, being fuelled by the hidden hand of the apartheid security apparatus. While it is by no means proven that all the recent damage to university property was caused by its students, all protest action can easily be hijacked by opportunistic forces unless all possible steps are taken by the protesters to prevent that from happening.
By the 1970s there was increasing infiltration of groupings opposed to apartheid by its police. Many feared to speak openly, including on the telephone. A letter writer to ‘The World’ newspaper before its 1977 banning opined that in a grouping of three people one would probably be a police informer. By the late 1970s the state stepped up its campaign to remove whole communities out of ‘white’ South Africa into Bantustans and, at a mass meeting of affected communities at a hall in Durban in 1981, one of the targeted communities – Chesterville – was represented by struggle veteran Pitness’Stalwart’ Similane. During the meeting, Similane became agitated, and complained that a woman who had just arrived (name given), claiming to represent Chesterville, was linked to the security policeman who had been keeping a watch on him when he was charged in the 1956 Treason Trial. This woman was at that stage working to ingratiate herself with the Black Sash.
By the 1980s, the state had devised its total strategy to deal with what it perceived as the total onslaught, with military extending its tentacles into civil society.
This was the context in which student activists operated, and many of them paid dearly for their brave struggles, including with their lives. The cream of provincial youth leadership was among those targeted by police or vigilantes in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were waves of detentions, often accompanied by torture, and various other forms of abuse. In March 1987, a seventeen year old female KwaMashu SRC member was abducted in town, driven by disguised men to an unknown area, questioned about the identities of other SRC members, and assaulted repeatedly by men who clearly had information about her. When she refused to take off her clothes they held her down while one ran a knife over her clothes, cutting into her, before cutting and ripping off her underwear and taking turns to rape her, laughing as they did so. They finally decided to let her live, and dumped her, blindfolded, at Umlazi, where a resident gave her money to travel home. The day before this incident the bodies of seven schoolboys who had been abducted were found near the border of KwaMashu and a nearby shack area. Such were the dangers faced by student activists. Some were turned by their detention into informers, but the police often framed people as informers knowing they would probably be killed. One of them, murdered in Chesterville, was teacher Philemon Khanyile. Notorious security policeman Frank Bennetts described to the Truth Commission how he had framed Khanyile. By the late 1980s many comrades were battling to maintain discipline as their ranks had been infiltrated by com-tsotsis, criminals who the police allowed to operate with impunity.
It was in this context that a grenade exploded at the then University of Natal in May 1992, causing huge damage to a chemistry laboratory. It followed protest action over the academic exclusion of a student (Knowledge Mdlalose)in which a prominent student activist M had played a pivotal role (and also in other educational protest action). Evidence links M, who was seen leaving the precincts when the grenade exploded, and was in possession of grenades that night, as being the culprit. M had been a student at various tertiary institutions and although he had never progressed beyond first year exerted tremendous influence over young comrades by claiming to be a lawyer. When the security police visited the scene of the explosion and were told that M had been seen in the vicinity, one commented that he was ‘trained in the use of explosives’ M was also seen near a burning motorcycle in the centre of Durban during a well supported protest march against the death of Chris Hani. M reportedly worked for the military as well as the security police, and had been linked to incidents in which comrades had died after being handed primed grenades. What evidence there is also suggests that the fires which gutted offices in the university’s Memorial Tower Building and Shepstone building in1986 as being orchestrated by the security police.
Apartheid era members remaining in the SAPS now serve the democratic government, but protesters, including idealistic youth, are unwittingly using the violent protest tactics perfected by the apartheid state. Students have legitimate grievances over the lack of sufficient tertiary level funding but there is no comparison between their struggles in a constitutional democracy – with various other options available to them – and the completely powerless youth under apartheid who were left with no option but to resort to struggle tactics. Tactics now open to students include the ballot box, peaceful lobbying and protest action, and an insistence on dialogue (they can also study part time, like their forebears did, towards qualifications, including degrees). The blame for the current funding crisis lies with the government, which fails to halt obscene corruption, billions in irregular expenditure, and the bailing out badly run parastatals rather than invest in the country’s youth. Its bloated, overpaid and largely ineffectual cabinet is a national disgrace.
However, it is essential that the university executive (and staff) find ways of engaging meaningfully with students, not only about the fees issue, but also on other protest linked grievances. They must investigate serious allegations about ill treatment at the hands of badly trained police and private security. We all need to know why, despite the presence of the university and other security, campus, property was not properly secured. There are also allegations that instigators of some of the violence are not university of KZN students, and may even be squatting in student residents (a practice rife during protests in the 1990s in which non-students featured prominently. Peaceful ways of resolving the present impasse must be found for violence begets further violence.