Shannon Arnold: Why I’ve aligned my privileged white ass with #feesmustfall

shannon arnold

Shannon Arnold’s parents must be proud. That they have raised a daughter with the courage to state and act on her convictions – and the good sense to look past the noise. Shannon (right) is a third year humanities student at Rhodes University,  an institution wracked by student unrest. Like everyone else nearing the end of their final year, she was looking forward to sitting the exams and getting on with her life. But she has consciously decided not to. Rather than drinking the koolaide of what she calls “plastered-TRC-rainbow-nation-bullshit” she has aligned her privileged ass with those who have called enough. Whether or not you buy her arguments, she has leveraged her right to be heard rather well. Shannon’s Facebook post, reproduced below with her permission, has been shared over 1 000 times, and through the virality has reached hundreds of thousands. Ironically, despite her cynicism for Nelson Mandela’s nation building ideal, by her very actions Shannon proves the Rainbow Nation ideal isn’t dead. And never will die. Dividing humanity by race is asinine when one considers that we share 99.9% of the same DNA. Where the real problem lies is in the artificial divisions perpetuated by unequal access to education. Fix that festering sore, and the country really will start to heal properly.  – Alec Hogg 

By Shannon Arnold*

I am a white woman. My parents own a large amount of commercial land. I went to a private school. My privilege is insurmountable. For this reason, I’m the person who doesn’t say things in my POL III class, and at the gatherings and meetings before and during protests; for this reason my voice has only been one of support, always, on social media and in general conversation. Why? Well, this space isn’t mine; no, it belongs to the marginalized, forgotten, dismissed as minor or unimportant, and me speaking of anything other than support would be hijacking, smothering, supersaturated by the very tropes of power we wish to transgress. So I sit quietly at the back or on the stairs, and I walk and protest with my fellow cadres in support of their struggle and hurt and pain.

However, after yesterday, I came to the realization that I do have a voice in this civil rights movement – it is one of responsibility. I have a responsibility, a debt, which is emotional, social, economic and political, to the poor, black student. I must pay for my privilege, I must be uncomfortable, I must walk, march, protest and stand with the poor, black student. I must. Why? Well, I have responsibility. I have a responsibility to use my privilege to further a good fight. And so, I will no longer be silent, and I ask that the white South African please listen to me.

Rhodes University
Rhodes University

I don’t wish this discussion to fall into rights discourse, as we will immediately find ourselves in the crux, or ‘catch 22’, of this argument, being that ‘I have the right to an education’. The reality is, is that those who argue for staying in class actually adopt the very same logic as the activist. The one barrier is physical interruption, the other is financial exclusion. I do not believe that one is more real or more important than the other. Yet what is quite apparent, is that the vast majority of South Africans (especially my fellow whites) would disagree and say that the former argument is more sound and should take precedence over the latter. Why? Well, those students PAID. The university therefore owes them their side of this contractual obligation. With that being said, what you are saying is that your right to education is more important because of money.

So where do we go from here? The problem is, is that this belief that you deserve your education is then premised on the fact that you paid for it and thus it is owed to you. But why would that mean that someone who hasn’t paid for it, then doesn’t have education owed to them? See, if I were to follow your logic, it would go along the lines of this. We entered into a contract with our government that exists as the constitution. The constitution states that the government should make tertiary education increasingly more accessible and available. Obviously they’ve broken the terms of this contract. Therefore, according to the general rights based argument, tertiary education is owed as much to the student who paid as to the student who didn’t.

Read also: Why #FeesMustFall students aren’t crazy. Mogoeng, Mchunu expose ‘uncomfortable truths’

(As a side note, I obviously can’t speak for the poor, black student who isn’t protesting; I refuse to use that student as some sort of martyr in this ideological war like management does #Lerato)

NOW THAT THAT NONSENSE IS OUT OF THE WAY. I implore you to look at our society. Sit in the Rhodes library and look out of the window and witness the splendor of Grahamstown – stretching out towards Joza. Recognize that systemic inequality, see it, acknowledge it, know it. Apartheid didn’t end, we are not post, not at all. You want your evidence? Step out of your front door. We have been told, again and again and again, that education is the way to break the cycle of poverty. And yet, knowing this, here you stand telling me that this fight is immoral, unethical, barbaric. The reality is quite simple, the reality is that we all live under some form of contractual obligation, as shown earlier, and if those obligations aren’t sound, aren’t okay, then they aren’t good for us or our society.

So we, the protestors, can’t fight for free education within the same system of obligations that ensure and protect your reality; we HAVE TO disrupt that system of obligations in order to encourage change.

Read also: Another university cancels academic year. What’s next for #FeesMustFall students?

No, this does not mean we should burn down and start again, but it does mean we must hollow out and try something different. I’m sorry that the disruption is such an inconvenience for you, I am. I WANT my degree too, just like you do, I can assure you of this. I don’t want to spend one more year in this hell hole. I’m not missing class because I want to; I missing class because I must.

The reality is, is that if you cared, if you really cared about your neighbor and looked after your neighbor before yourself we probably wouldn’t be in this mess. The reality also is, is that if you are South African, this is your problem, this is your society. See it for goodness sake. It’s crying, it’s bleeding. And it won’t take some plastered-TRC-rainbow-nation bullshit to fix it this time.

@zapiro's take on Blade Nzimande's recommendation of a fee adjustment of not more than 8%.
@zapiro’s take on Blade Nzimande’s recommendation of a fee adjustment of not more than 8%.

So, all I ask is that we do not talk about rights, talking about rights will get us nowhere. Let’s talk about humanity for a second. Humanity doesn’t gun down students who throw rocks; or slander them on public platforms for calling for social change by breaking their petty rules; or clap when they’re arrested. No, humanity doesn’t do that. But, apparently South Africans do. As I said, plastered-TRC-rainbow-nation bullshit.

With all of this being said, all I ask of you is to look at yourself and ask, how human am I? Am I so inhumane that I value the law over justice?

I didn’t think so.

One last thing, just so that you get the message, #feesmustfall.

  • Shannon Arnold is a third year student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.