We Didn’t Start The Fire – It Was Always Burning

As cities and universities burn in South Africa and the US, our ‘hashtag’ movements give us a glimpse of both the past and the future.


It is an intriguing coincidence that when one watches the news these days, the images coming from the US are almost exactly the same as those coming from South Africa.

What’s more, both have a hashtag at the heart of the burning, looting, and rioting – namely #BlackLivesMatter for the US, and #FeesMustFall for South Africa.

Is it a coincidence?

I don’t think so.

I think the movements stem from the same social force, brought to life by similar social conditions.

But before we try to understand that force, it’s worth simply recounting the brief history of both movements.

Black Lives Matter is a loose movement in response to police killings of black citizens.

It has been at the heart of major urban riots in response to particular killings. The latest being Charlotte in North Carolina where the mayor recently instituted a public curfew.

Fees Must Fall is a student movement in opposition to fee increases at South African universities. Students have marched to Parliament in Cape Town, to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and have burnt and damaged university property.

To a large degree, it has its origins in the Rhodes Must Fall movement which sought to get rid of all the old colonial symbols still depicted in South African universities.

The first thing to note here is that these movements do not contain simple narratives, where on the one hand you have the oppressors and the other hand the innocent victims, rising up in righteous protest.

For example, it is obvious that American police have victimised black men. It is much more likely the police will harass or kill you if you are a young black man. We have seen many examples of this in the news.

But it is also true that on a daily basis police enter urban ghettoes in which black men represent a disproportionate number of the perpertrators of crime – mostly directed at other black men.

Some have validly pointed out that the Black Lives Matter leaders are eerily quiet when it comes to the astoundingly high number of black victims of violent crime not perpetrated by white police.

What’s more, some of the famous victims (some, not all!) have been shown to be criminals who threatened the police before being shot.

The same goes for Fees Must Fall.

It is hard for the average middle class person to sympathise with people who throw faeces at statues, burn paintings and libraries, and storm and disrupt lectures and meetings, arguing that they will never listen to old or white men, because they want to decolonise an institution that was in reality founded and endowed by colonial white men.

But yet they do have something of a point.

The way our economy is structured is such that if one does not have a degree, you in essence become a wage slave, forever at the whim of the market and employers. If you are poor, you forever lack the capital of a profession or money or knowledge.

And the government does not seem to care. In fact, the Minister of Higher Education has actually laughed at these people. What’s more, the government simply does not have the money to subsidise universities to the extent that studying for a degree could ever be free.

Thus it should be obvious that there are no easy solutions here.

This is because both movements deal with deep history: colonialism, slavery, apartheid. And you can’t just simply put society back together after you have experienced such cataclysms.

But before you can get to the solutions, you have to understand why these movements have suddenly arisen with such violent force.


I am no social scientist, and I don’t have the time to amass all the relevant data, but here’s my best guess.

America and South Africa are no longer countries – but a collection of tribes. And tribes can only define themselves by an outsider group, an enemy, who becomes the scapegoat, the release valve for all our rage and rivalries.

In South Africa, the ‘rainbow nation’ narrative is dead. Nobody even tries to tell that story anymore. Instead, stuck in a fragmented world of individualism and consumerism, we meet our social needs by unconsciously forming tribes. And tribes need enemies, whether it is the foreigner, the ANC, the colonialists or whoever. You need a tribe, and a tribe needs an enemy, which requires a cause.

In America, for the past century the notion of a national identity has been undermined. Democrats and Republicans hate each other. The whole story of the American Dream has become meaningless in a globalised world in which it is harder than ever to climb the economic ladder. So people form tribes based on the cause or issue which hurts them the most or best represents their tribal identity.

In no way am I trying to explain away the problems of expensive education, systemic economic exclusion and police violence and militarisation.

I am trying, however, to explain why these issues have created these conflicts in which opponents cannot even talk to each other anymore – in which no solution seems possible within the inevitable rounds of protest. This is because listening to the enemy would undermine the need to be a tribe.

As an aside, this is why there is no debate about another public issue, climate change. Both sides just hurl insults at each other – or applaud themselves for even mentioning their tribal cause (think of the ovation Leo DiCapro got from the Hollywood set for mentioning global warming in his Oscar speech).

This tribe-forming phenomenon is also the source of political correctness – the limits on what you can think and say and still be part of the tribe. It is also the reason these current movements have hashtags – the hashtag shows the tribal group-think, pervasive like some kind of anonymous spirit permeating through social media.

So is there any way out of the violence and conflict?

Can the hashtag movements achieve some kind of recognition, some compromise, and then stop protesting and rioting?

At heart, this is really a question of whether tribes can ever be one nation.

The answer is yes, of course they can.

But tribes need leaders who can see through their own tribalism, who understand and can transcend the cycle of violence, and can forsake their own identity and power in order to seek a common humanity.

Obama was meant to be such a leader. But, of course, he failed. He has only escalated America’s tribalism.

Mandela was meant to be ours. And he was. But not to such an extent that he could transform the ANC into a political party instead of a self-referential movement.

Unless we find these transcendent leaders in the US and SA soon, expect an escalation of hashtag movements, in continual collision with the so-called establishment. Cities and universities will continue to burn.

Such a burning was perhaps best explicated by that great piano man, Billy Joel.

“We didn’t start the fire – it was always burning, since the world’s been turning.”

But every now and then, as our continued existence and progress on this planet proves, somebody sees through the smoke of this conflict and refuses to fuel the fire.