OPINION: Student protests force us to look in the mirror

In a sea of protesting students, her arms are outstretched, holding up a piece of cardboard emblazoned with red writing. On Parliament's doorstep, the poster she clutches asks a poignant question: 1976?

Imraan Christian's powerful image, taken at yesterday's national shutdown, rhymes with the historical student protests of 1976. It echoes a struggle entangled with history, and unfinished, for many reasons, with a stark and searing clarity. Even as this moment is also different to what came before it. Even as this struggle has its own particularities.

And across the ocean, in Ferguson, Missouri, another poster rhymed with this moment. The words on that placard, protesting Michael Brown's death at the hands of a police officer last year, ricochet across time and space. That poster simply stated: "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit".

This is history being made in real-time, with all its characteristic messiness and conflicting narratives, struggling to become the story we tell of this moment. Distinct and different narratives have emerged on newspaper front pages and digital screens. Many have painted students as violent, called them hooligans, and referred to them using terms such as 'marauding'. Many who valourise past student uprisings, show an ironic disdain for our generation's own.

But this revolution will be tweeted and downloaded. Students have documented their own struggle and, along with independent news sites like The Daily Vox, are showing how skewed mainstream reportage paints a different picture to the reality on the ground. In pictures, videos and first-hand accounts, the story behind the headlines, sensational imagery, and one-sided narratives are revealed on our timelines.

Those timelines are also reflecting the fault-lines of our society. Social media theatres of opinion show the stark lines that divide us, across race, class ideology and thought that are often invisible in our daily interactions with each other. These lines have always been here, but are often fainter in reality, silently breathing through our dinner table conversations, offices, public and personal interactions. These opinions have both connected us, and also split us in ways that have brought us to an impasse, from which it is difficult to return.

Some have stated that they are not 'political' and choose to remain silent in these times. But silence is itself a political statement. And in the words of feminist thinker Audre Lorde: "Your silence will not protect you" from the very thing that this moment resists.

This protest is challenging the problematic idea that #RhodesMustFall was just about a statue. This protest is not just about fees. This protest is about an inescapable sophisticated system of structural inequality that touches all spaces and all things: from university halls to boardrooms, classrooms to restaurants, department stores to sidewalks. This protest is about an environment of 'well-manicured and eloquent hostility' that many of us know all-too-well. Yet we've been biting down, swallowing our resistance, chewing on pay cheques and trying to make it to the next social class, even as the oxygen gets increasingly thinner.

We've been playing the rules of the game, even as we loudly critique it, because it's what we know - because its rules dictate the terms and conditions of our society. Because we have tried to make our homes in an environment never designed for the architecture of our lives.

As we sit on the side-lines, many of us are learning about what it means to be an ally. We are figuring out what solidarity looks like. It is important that we not centre ourselves. This story belongs to the students who are the protagonists of their struggle. Their narratives need to be told in their words - and we should amplify their voices where we can. The same 'born-frees' accused of being apathetic and part of a narcissistic generation and rising up to resist the terms and conditions of a society that affords many of us some degree of cushioned comfort, sitting side-by-side with a consistent discomfort.

They challenge us to consider how we are complicit in systems of power, benefiting from them and uphold them. These students are doing what we did not, for a variety of reasons. As Mail & Guardian editor Verashni Pillay recently tweeted: "Again this generation makes me question how little we dared. The Rhodes [minimum initial payment] was a battle for me, yet I suffered silently".

The student protests are shining a light that extends both inward and outward. They make us pose numerous difficult questions to ourselves and society as a whole. Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we believe? What are we willing to give up? The hold our institutions, government and ourselves accountable for the society we have created.

These protests hold up a mirror to ourselves, each other, and our society. For some that mirror will reflect a distorted image, for others it challenges our beliefs and complicity, and for more it will not shift how they view their lives and the state of South African society. For the media, this becomes a hall of mirrors, reflecting different, skewed and conflicting stories about this moment in history that are being reported. That mirror only tells us what we want to see.

But as Lorde stated, "the subject of revolution is our lives". All of our lives. Because, as another poster from these protests stated: "Just because the spew of fire isn't reaching you doesn't mean it's not spewing. It just means you're at the back, watching your brothers and sisters get burned in the front. When they are dead and gone, the flame will reach you too".

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.