THE BIGGER PICTURE
"One who trusts will not panic."
"First sit down and estimate the cost."
Given all that is happening at the universities, to say nothing about the amazing cricket win against Australia last night, you might have missed another remarkable news item. South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope has now released its first image showing 1,300 galaxies in the distant universe. This is far more than was previously thought to be the case, and it is only the beginning. Sometime within the next decade when the SKA or Square Kilometre Array telescope reaches completion, astronomers we will have a picture of the universe that is more immense than we could ever have imagined. This is the bigger picture within which the earth exists as a tiny blob on a distant horizon. But, of course, those of us who live on this tiny blob might well wonder what is so important about this cosmological discovery and why we should spend so much money on exploring outer space. I don't actually know the answer to that. I simply assume we need to know all we can about the universe in which we live for some good reason..
But there are other big pictures that are of more immediate concern. I refer to education in South Africa brought into sharp focus by the #Feesmustfall protests. If education is a priority matter for the well-being of society, if there are injustices in the system that need to be dealt with, and if lives and property are at risk, then we must as Christians, be concerned, become informed, and respond. But in responding nobody should lose sight of the bigger picture. It is easy to make assumptions, form opinions on hearsay or media reports, or make unhelpful pronouncements. It is also easy to get into panic mode, take rash decisions, and act in ways that are counter-productive. The need for urgent action, and we do need urgency, is not helped by panic reaction in this matter as in life more generally. The issues are complex, and there are no short-cut easy fix solutions. So we need to get some perspective. Let me offer some thoughts that might be helpful.
Firstly the basic demand of the students for a free education for the poor in South Africa is right. This is the corner stone of their protest and we must not lose sight of it amid all the other stuff that is going on. It is central to the bigger picture. But this requires that the government re-think its spending priorities, not at the expense of health, housing and other basic needs, but by cutting back on projects that are sucking our economy dry and dealing more energetically with corruption. Government funding of tertiary education is woefully inadequate. But we also have to ensure that those who attend university have received a quality school education that equips them to succeed. Those in authority certainly to sit down and count the cost involved in funding free education, but they also have to count the cost of not doing so. So the battle on the campuses is part of a political struggle about what the government does with our taxes. Of course, there are other political agendas at play in the protests. The fight being waged in parliament, between the EFF and ANC, is the back story to much that is happening on the campuses.
Secondly, non-violent protest is a constitutional right. Students have a right to engage in protest on the campuses, and they can do so as energetically they see the need. Students have done this through the ages, and have done so in South Africa many times before now. And often their causes have been just and proved right in the end. But acts of violence are illegal and counter-productive. None of us, and I think the vast majority of protesting students and their leaders, do not want to destroy buildings and the rest. They know that these belong to them and future generations. But in the bigger picture, violent action is indicative of the pent-up anger and frustration among many back students even if, and we have no way of knowing, there might be some criminal elements among them. It is true that the law must take its course to prevent anarchy. But excessive police force and even brutality is a sign of panic and bad training, and only makes things worse. In the bigger picture negotiation is the key, however difficult that is. You can be sure that every effort is being made to do this. I know personally know some of those involved. They need our prayers and support.
Thirdly, it is vital that the universities get back on track as soon as possible, but also in doing so that they put in place mechanisms that will deal adequately and as speedily as possible with the grievances of the protesting students. University administrators know this and they are doing everything humanly possible to make it happen. They know only too well that, we cannot afford preventing doctors, educators, scientists, and others that society so desperately needs, from graduating this year. They are desperately needed. But we also know that it is equally important that all who qualify to become university students and therefore future leaders in society, should have the opportunity to achieve their potential. It is not just this year's students that matter; it is this and the coming generation that matter as well. Solutions to the current situation must be long-term. That is why we have to count the cost of funding education and not make rash decision, but we also have to count the cost of not doing so adequately.
I have not said everything that needs to be said, or everything that I would like to say, but I I ask you to take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah: "One who trusts will not panic!" If we really believe that God is at work in the struggles for justice for the poor; if we really believe in the integrity of those who are giving everything of their time and energy and skill to deal with the problems in ways that will bring healing; if we really do believe that times of crisis are also times of God-given opportunity in which transformation and renewal can take place, then we will not panic. But we will certainly pray and seek to do what is right where we can, and do so with urgency. We will also do everything we can to ensure that the present and the coming generations of young people can achieve their potential. That is why Volmoed is committed to the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme and supportive of the Sparklekids initiative. All this is part of the bigger picture of which we are a part. It may only be but a small part of the bigger picture of our ever expanding universe, but it is our part. "One who trusts will not panic." That is the Word of God!
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 6 October 2016