From Cape Town to Sydney: why I am occupying SCA

September 16, 2016
Juanel de la Forêt speaking at a Sydney College of the Arts rally on September 7

Juanel de la Forêt gave this speech at a Sydney College of the Arts rally on September 7 against Sydney University’s proposal to close the college.

* * *

I would like to acknowledge that I am an occupier on occupied land. I offer my respects to Aboriginal elders, past and present.

I am an international student from Cape Town, South Africa, and a first year student at Sydney College of the Arts. I am also a proud occupier and would like to thank you all for coming and for this incredible support.

I am here today, involved in this campaign, for two reasons: the personal and the political. The personal is shorter, so I will start there.

Ten years ago I made a promise to myself to return to school to study art, after I did the sensible thing and got an "employable" degree. I finally found my ideal art degree, at an ideal location, in a city that would make missing Cape Town bearable. I have moved countries and put an established career on hold to be here, and it has been simultaneously the best and scariest decision I have ever made.

The second reason for being here needs to start with another acknowledgement and an expression of solidarity.

I find my eyes and my heart significantly more open today and I owe that to the courageous class of 2015 and 2016. Many of the brave students who took part in the recent and ongoing student movement in South Africa did not get to graduate as a result of their commitment and sacrifice. Our universities and the state responded to their activism with victimisation, expulsion, criminalisation, police intimidation and brutality.

Fallists: I thank you, and I am with you. I cannot begin to express my gratitude in words, so I strive to do so in action.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement, originally launched in March 2015 at the University of Cape Town, called for the removal of coloniser Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from campus. This symbolic action proved to be the cathartic moment that galvanised some of our nation’s most formidable young minds behind a unified cause.

The movement’s broader political scope was established and held up by three foundational pillars: radical intersectional feminism, Pan-Africanism and black consciousness. The movement called for the decolonisation of tertiary education and the end of institutional racism, the economic exclusion of black students and the exploitation of campus workers.

Student uprisings spread nationwide from campus to campus and grew into the largest united student revolt since the Soweto student uprising of 1976.

In October, various branches of the movement united under the banner of “Fees Must Fall” to protest the government's proposed 10% tuition fee increase. Thousands of students from universities across the country gathered at the Union Building, the government’s seat in Pretoria, and forced our leadership to listen.

The students succeeded. This student-led, non-partisan movement woke South Africans up from the “colourblind” illusions induced by the rainbow haze. A national debate around decolonisation, institutional racism and identity politics was brought to the dinner table.

Our youth inspired a nation to sit down, listen, look inwards and not only ask difficult questions but find solutions — on both the individual and collective level.

They pressured our leadership in a way no other movement has managed in the past two decades: President Jacob Zuma announced that tuition fee hikes would be scrapped for 2016, and the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand and Johannesburg all buckled under student pressure and ended labour outsourcing.

Despite these victories, the struggle for free education and the decolonisation of universities continues. But, while there was always a desire for change, what has undeniably been ignited is the will to act.

Last week, school children around the country brazenly protested against racist hair and language policies at some of South Africa’s most prestigious private schools — and won. They reminded the citizenry that the status quo, especially when normalised by the air of excellence, demands to be challenged. Thirteen-year-old black girls abolished decades-old codes of conduct rooted in racial discrimination. Thirteen-year-olds.

There has been a remarkable and inspiring shift in the spirit of our youth. They are driving change and the custodians of oppressive structures are running scared.

In February, a month before I relocated to Sydney, students at the University of Cape Town erected and occupied a shack to highlight the institution’s accommodation crisis and to protest the systemic exclusion of black students.

I attended the Shackville Occupation and took a seat on the stairs in front of the demonstration to reflect on my years at that very campus. One-by-one, students took the floor in front of the shack and told their stories of exclusion to the crowd gathered on the steps.

By coincidence, an old classmate found me and we sat for hours catching up while listening to students coming forward. He told me how he used to sleep under the library tables; how a lecturer he confided in fed him for months; how he couldn’t afford to travel to see his family for the entirety of his studies; of the shame of black poverty at an elitist institution like University of Cape Town.

I was shocked. I went to class with this man for a whole year. I would have called us friends at the time and yet I was completely oblivious at the time to the violence of his lived experience. It hit me how my ignorance and inaction made me complicit in perpetuating the systemic oppression he endured. I thought of the thousands of students who suffered in silence, the students speaking in front of us there. The students still to come.

That moment pulled into focus the true cost of my own inaction, considering the resources available to me. I realised that my responsibility as someone who does have access to education — both as an alumni and current student — is to fight for that access for future generations.

In South Africa that fight takes on the institutional racism entrenched in our universities. Here, today, that fight takes on the commodification of tertiary education. Regardless of where you are in the world, education is a right, not a privilege.

Yes, we are here to save Sydney College of the Arts, but we are also here for every other faculty at this university, because if they can do this to us, they can do this to you. An injury to one is still an injury to all.

French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the European school, like the factory and the prison, was developed as an instrument of discipline. Its aim is to prepare the student for labour and to accept a subordinate place in society. This agenda is becoming resoundingly clear when universities can gut diverse degree offerings in favour of profit, turning campuses into assembly lines.

We cannot allow a society where universities can destroy knowledge by destroying access to education. We cannot allow a society where the supposed guardians of knowledge — academics, intellectuals, journalists, writers and artists — abandon their calling to speak truth to power and become the mouthpiece of a ruling cabal.

In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges writes: “For Socrates, all virtues were forms of knowledge. To train someone to manage an account for Goldman Sachs is to educate him or her in a skill. To train them to debate stoic, existential, theological and humanist ways of grappling with reality is to educate them in values and morals.

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and ‘success’, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilisation is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Art is under attack. Education is under attack. And unless we physically defy this act of destruction we are complicit. Those who dare to resist keep hope alive. Those who give in to fear or apathy become the allies of destruction.

A sentiment that has been repeated throughout this campaign and one I'd like to reiterate today is this: in the face of modern conditions, to study art, to be an artist, to support the arts, is an act of open defiance.

We are at a critical point in history. Not just here in Australia, in fighting for our art school, for our education. Our local fights for justice are but one cog in a global effort. There is a neoliberal onslaught on our planet and on our civil liberties. It does not take much investigation to confirm that our causes are interconnected.

Look at the condition of our planet and her people — the stakes are high, and they are rising along with the temperatures. Opportunities for liberation are emerging neck-in-neck with opportunities for totalitarianism. The opposition is constantly refining and improving. We simply cannot afford apathy. The battle will be won by the timing and the quality of our organising. It is not enough for us to dare to struggle, as Mao once warned, we have to dare to win.

The university has grossly underestimated the acute minds and bold hearts that have united behind this campaign. And together we will bring this bloated executive to its knees.

A luta continua.



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