by Dan Wylie
As I write this, in late 2016, South Africa’s universities are in turmoil. What began as a legitimate campaign for better funding for poor students – indeed, better funding for tertiary education generally – has been compromised by factionalised and politicised campaigns by minority groups with muddled and obscure motives. Counter-productive vandalism has been met with police over-reaction; government dithering has been met with intensified utopian and undemocratic demands. Bullying; dancing; wild ideas; rubber bullets; mistrust. We have been here before, of course: the 1980s were witness to campus disturbances, albeit directed against apartheid – but some of the issues and the methods of both protest and suppression are of a piece – a continuous if entangled and self-contradictory history.
That history and its resurgence into the present have made me look again at the story I have to tell here. Some of our students, born in the ‘post-apartheid era’, indeed in the new millennium, despite being relatively freed, have survived some horrific experiences: bereavement, abuse, psychological meltdown. Most remain relatively privileged, however, not least in the fact that their story has hit the headlines – unlike the story of the man I call Vuyo , a man from a segment of society whose experiences are less often told. I knew him for about 15 years. Ill-educated but continually self-teaching, hard-beaten but uncowed, he had no sense of entitlement. He was unemployed but in his way ambitious, impoverished in choices but unselfish in his actions. He didn’t slavishly follow anyone, begged for no favours, and courageously crossed boundaries most of us dare not. So his obscure subsidence into tragedy has particularly sharp-edged lessons for us all.
It is a peculiarly South African story, peculiar in its tentativeness, in its perpetually unfinished quality. I serialise it in eight parts. It is told mostly in Vuyo’s own voice; it is what is left of him.
Text and images (c) Dan Wylie