What do you do when your matric daughter wants to join the #feesmustfall march at the Union Buildings? Kate Sidley had a big day, and she wasn't even there.
Photographer: By Myolisi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s 6.30am and my oldest child is hunched over a piece of cardboard, scribbling away with a black marker pen.
I recognise this early morning scribbling from years of last minute project-finishing, but this time it’s different. On the cardboard is written "Education is a Right #FeesMustFall", and she’s not running late for school (she is, in fact, in between matric exams), she’s running to catch a train to Pretoria to join the student march to the Union Buildings.
It has always been a parenting aim of mine to raise children who give a damn. About anything, really, water polo, music, their friends, the environment, but in particular, about other people, and about social justice.
So when my daughter began to show an interest in politics and ideas and causes I was proud and encouraging. Sure, I’ll drop you in a nearby suburb to meet chat with your feminist group. Yes, to an anti-rape march around the suburbs. By all means, stand on Oxford Road and demand that someone, anyone, Bring Back Our Girls, or Say No To Xenophobia.
Education is a big deal in our family. My mother was a devoted educator. I volunteer in a reading support programme. So I fully endorse the students in their quest for affordable, quality education for all and I am very pleased that my daughter, who has had every possible educational advantage from baby books to extra physics lessons, does too.
But this is a mass march in a different city, without a sensible adult in attendance, without me, and in an unpredictable climate. My first instinct, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, was to rack my brain for a good reason why she shouldn’t go. Momentarily, I hoped that perhaps her father would say no, not in the middle of exams (look, I already said I was ashamed. Cut me some slack, I am her mother).
But there was no good reason, and Dad said yes. In fact, I knew that this was a good thing for her to do. I remember the excitement of a good rally. The camaraderie, the singing, the building tension – rather like the moments before the big rock act comes onto stage, but with the additional thrill of being part of a cause, sure of one’s position on the right side of history. I want that for her.
I send her off with the same sort of advice I give when she goes to outdoor concerts: Put on sunblock. Have you got a hat? Don’t forget a water bottle. Take a snack. Stick together. Is your phone fully charged? Sms me when you get there and when you leave.
I add more words of advice, gleaned during student protests at Wits in the late 80s, and mixed with motherly common sense.
Take a scarf and if there’s teargas, wet the scarf and put it over your mouth and nose.
Make a time and place to meet your friends in case it gets chaotic and you get separated.
When you are marching, take a look around for escape routes in case you have to run.
Do not get trapped near a fence and do not sit down in the front and wait to get charged or trampled on.
Give the rabble-rousers and the dustbin over-turners a wide berth.
Because I also remember the fear. The unpredictability of a mass of protestors and police. I want to warn her but not scare her. I try not to go on about the rubber bullets, which I’ve seen break and arm and I know can take out an eye.
So off she goes, out into the world, my 18-year-old daughter with her little sign.
I spend hours flicking around the TV, checking Facebook and Twitter, watching the march from a distance, trying to get a sense of where it’s going to go.
I watch as a mother, thinking a mother’s thoughts: I hope she’s not near that burning tyre. Jees, is that a stun grenade? I hope she’s got enough sense to keep clear of that group. Would Zuma just come out already? Well the cops seem calm…
It’s getting increasingly tense and I fear for these young protestors. Every one of them is someone’s beloved son or daughter. Every one a child who deserves what my child has – a good education that they can afford – and who is bravely demanding that right.
My girl, no, my bold young woman, sends a message that she’s coming home. When I fetch her from the station, she’s exhausted, but delirious with success: “0%!” she crows. “We did it! We won!”
Because I am old and cynical, I know that this is but a small victory in a long and difficult battle. Because I am an idealist and a mother, I know that this is a huge victory that teaches young people the important lesson that their actions really can change the world.