Nelson Mandela’s dead, and I don’t really know how I’m meant to feel about it. I’m not sad; he lived to 95 which would be impressive even if he hadn’t spent 27 years in prison. I could celebrate his legacy, like world leaders did at his memorial on Tuesday – but I’m not sure that’s appropriate either. So, as is my inclination when my emotions are undetermined and confused, I’ve decided to get angry. Nelson Mandela’s death, like the death of Margaret Thatcher earlier this year, reminds me that the Millennial Generation is like the youngest sibling at the dinner table – jealous of all they missed out on because they were born too late. We look back at the social and political upheaval of the 20th century, and fail to see that our own times are just as important, and that there are still things to fight and struggle for.
Take Wadham College’s famous JCR Motion, which requires that ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ be played at the end of every bop. At first glance this seems uplifting. It is a reminder of a great cause that Oxford students fought for (or if you were a member of the Federation of Conservative Students, fought against). It demonstrates a past of student activism and political engagement, and yet there is something unsettling about it: It feels like nothing has moved forward. The JCR president at the time, Simon Milner, is quoted on the Wadham College website as saying, ‘Then , the motion was for the song to be played until Mandela was freed.” Playing the song was an act of protest, intended to show solidarity with the ANC. There is nothing wrong with continuing to play the song after Mandela’s release, in celebration of his freedom and the end of apartheid, but when the only JCR motion that takes on a political cause is 23 years out of date, I start to question the student body’s convictions.
The largest student protest in the UK in the 21st century was in 2010, and it was against the tuition fee hike. Though Oxford students might feel these protests were unsuccessful, as they still face £9,000 annual tuition fees, they did convince the Welsh Assembly to oppose the rise. When students come together they can do a great deal to influence public opinion. If students had no political sway, then the hard-liners in the Communist Party would not have suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests with such violence. It seems outrageous then that in the last 13 years our largest protest has been against a hike in the amount we have to pay for education. Not the illegal invasion of Iraq, not the destruction of the welfare state, not Israeli settlements in occupied territory, not the occupation of Tibet which has resulted in the self-immolation of Tibetan monks, not the persecution of the LGBT community in Russia, but the rise in tuition fees was the only thing that stirred the students of this country to action. Even Oxford students who went out in Michaelmas to support the walk out of Academic staff managed to distort the protest and turn it into a discussion of Hamilton’s proposal to further increase tuition fees.
I realise that this is perhaps the left-wing counterpart to Tory musings on the good old days of cricket on the village green, but what happened to the fire that was in the bellies of the Wadham JCR in 1987? Of course, you’ll say it was a silly thing. And in terms of impact on people’s lives playing Free Nelson Mandela was negligible, but it did succeed in politicising one of Oxford’s frivolous traditions: the bop. I’m not saying that now we are all apolitical, amoral, bastards. Look at St Anne’s recent motion, which mandates that the JCR lobby the college to pay all its employees the living wage. This is admirable, and shows that the alliance between workers and students lives on. But it deals with a national issue only on a college level. Why aren’t we all marching for the implementation of a living wage nationwide?
On Thursday, Wadham celebrated Nelson Mandela’s life by gathering in the Front Quad and singing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, as they paired up and climbed on each other’s shoulders (what they call ‘Mandelaing’.) I can’t help but look at this and feel worried. It is fine to celebrate his life, and remember the impact he had on your college’s history. But I see in Mandela’s death an opportunity. I hope the people ‘Mandelaing’ were thinking of what they could learn from the man whose name they verbalised. I hope people across the University realise the power they wield as students, and will think hard about what political causes their JCRs could take on. I know I will be.