Reflecting on students unrest

The recent protests and violence at South African universities make it necessary to reflect on what is happening in our society. Students at higher learning institutions are both a reflection of society and different from society in general. Students enter universities with attitudes, behavioural patterns and views on life that they have learnt from their families and schools. Being a student also means having the privilege to engage with and be exposed to new attitudes, behavioural patterns and views on life. It can be expected that, while studying, students will develop a deeper social and political awareness.

Without doubt the student body at any university is diverse. Not only in background, but also in the way they approach the hardship that comes with studying while resources are limited. It can be expected that student leaders, in the form of SRCs, will be at the forefront of protests. Students involved in student politics are often more socially and politically aware than the norm and will either defend the status quo or oppose the system.
Many different themes can be identified in the behaviour of student groups at campuses. One of the visible themes is that of “entitlement”. This is a dangerous feature of the protests. If we feel entitled, we are not really willing to negotiate, because we expect the outcome of negotiations to favour our view one hundred percent. It seems that the attitude of entitlement heightens emotions, make people more intolerant, more emotional and less rational. If you add to that group process dynamics, you have an explosive situation.
The protesters create the impression that they are entitled to have all their demands met and are also entitled to behave as they like. Entitlement is also visible in the attitude of those who feel they have the right to defend the status quo – at some universities, the right of the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, or certain white privileges, are defended because these universities were historically white and Afrikaans.
Another grouping is that of students who form prayer chains. But this group may also be working with an attitude of entitlement. The question is, how they will react if the police shoot at them or the protesters attack them. They may think that their faith entitles them to occupy the holy middle ground of reconciliation!
Unfortunately, entitlement is confused with human rights and what the constitution envisages for us as a country. Entitlement demands immediate changes and undermines the possibility of understanding that a country (and for that matter a university) is in a constant process of negotiating the future. Entitlement encourages childish behaviour. The difference between needs and wants becomes confused in the process. The best example is children who demand certain brand name clothes from their parents, because they feel entitled to it.

An attitude of entitlement is visible in the behaviour of our politicians. Corruption itself is embedded in an attitude of entitlement. The way the government analyses and communicates the problems of the country is very similar to the way the apartheid government analysed and communicated the problems in the country. The apartheid government created an idea of entitlement in the minds of white people. The present government creates the same idea of entitlement in the minds of historically disadvantaged members of our society. The entitlement solution to the reality of diversity is to demonise and to try to get rid of “the other”. The presence of “the other” is understood to be the main reason why we do not have everything we are entitled to. It is no surprise that students think that by burning down buildings, destroying art, demolishing statues or calling for the resignation of certain people, their actions are part of the solution or an acceptable way of dealing with the emotion of frustration.

We need leadership that does not, by word or deed, promote the idea of entitlement to South Africans. This does not mean turning a blind eye to injustice, inequality and the abuse of power. True cohesion requires an attitude of both accepting personal responsibility and sharing responsibility with others in order to create the future. In that way there will come into being a space in which we can deal with the past without resorting to an attitude of entitlement, and where all of us can accept responsibility – individually for ourselves, and together – for the future.

Frederik Nel (Life Coach); admin@fnel.co.za
March 2016