Externalities of the Protests

When you think about the most important protests and movements in history — the Civil Rights Movement, the Berlin Wall protests, the French Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, Tiananmen Square, etc. — do you ever think about what kind of impact it has on local civilians during the times of the protest?

Maybe. But, we’re mostly focused on what the protests did and what kind of impact/change they were able to effect.  Right?

Like, did we ever think about the kind of traffic the March on Washington must have caused to daily commuters in DC?  Probably not.  This detail may seem really insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it is probably an issue that was real to the people at that time.

Now that I’m living in a time of protest (is it past tense now?), I can tell you from my own perspective what kind of impact the protests have had on my everyday life. These are what I call the “externalities” of the movement.

As an economics term, externalities are outcomes that are not accounted for by the model.  They are outside the scope of the intervention, and they can positive or negative outcomes accrued by a third party.  Pollution is probably the textbook example of an externality.

From my point of view, these protests, though definitely for a great cause, cause a handful of externalities (though the examples that I provide are not going to exactly fit the definition that I just provided of “externalities).  If I could describe them, for myself, in one word, it would be “inconvenient”.

Today is the first day that the university has resumed “business as usual”, and I can’t even tell you what I have been doing these past two weeks.  Overall, I haven’t been getting a lot of work done, nor have I been having a lot of fun.  Let’s just say that today is the first day I have felt productive in many days.  So, let me just write a list of the externalities that affected me:

  • First and foremost, this was a workers and students protest, so university was shut down.  Libraries were closed, the Jammie shuttle (which is one of my main modes of transportation) wasn’t running, the cafés on campus weren’t serving food and coffee, and the residence halls were not getting cleaned.
  • The protest occurred during Consolidation Week, which is the week of no class right before the exam period starts.  This is powerful because it forces management, government, people in power, etc. to act quickly before it interrupts exams (which it did).
  • There were road blockages, where boulders or other large objects were placed on the road to prevent cars from driving into campus.  Therefore, it was hard for students to get onto campus to study or even meet people to work on group projects.  I’m currently writing a very large trade report (which will probably be around 10,000 words), and I needed to meet people to sign agreements and to discuss strategies.  I couldn’t do that during the past two weeks.
  • I have also been worried about the safety of my friends who participated in the protests.  I read articles, and I heard about the stun grenades, the rubber bullets, and the arrests of students.  In the early days of the protest, I had run into one of my friends outside a grocery store after the events of the day, and he told me that he nearly got arrested the day before but was lucky to evade the police.
  • Residence halls: they were not getting cleaned.
    • Kitchen: As college students, if you’re used to someone else cleaning for you, you are not going to clean up after yourself.  (I’m going to keep this example to the approximately 7 people I share a kitchen with.) Every morning, the kitchen is usually cleaned, but it turns into a mess by the end of the day.  People don’t wash their dishes, and they leave them in the sink or counter.  People allow their soups or sauces to boil over, and they don’t wipe down the stove.   They actually just leave their food cooking on the stove and come back to it later, and that’s when it boils over.  There are spices and oils that get spilled and left on the counter.  Trash piles up.  And I get it.  Cooking is messy sometimes, but seriously, you have to be a little more considerate.  (I promise you, for the messes that I make, I clean it up.  I do my dishes, and if I don’t, then I leave the dirty dishes in my room).
      Imagine all that happening and accumulating for days.  The kitchen was absolutely a sty.
      Should I have cleaned it up?  Maybe, but that’s not fair to me (free riding in its finest).  Should I have organized a group clean up?  Maybe, but one of my friends, who lives in another residence hall, told me that students were preventing each other from cleaning their spaces, in support of the workers, to show that we need them.  It’s a statement.  I am forever thankful that someone came to clean it up today.
    • Bathroom: basically the same thing.  But, we ran out of toilet paper fast.  We’re lucky that the cleaning staff did come in a few days during the two weeks just to replace the toilet paper, but the bathroom was also a mess.
    • Things were changing in the residence halls, to accommodate the protest.  This email was sent out:
      Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 7.42.09 PM
      I hope you can read this just on your screen, but if you can’t, click the image!

      Not only was the place where I lived was gross to look at, it was becoming a safety hazard, and there wasn’t much we could do about it if we got sick.  There was a limited opportunity to do laundry too.

  • University was closed.  This is a more psychological effect on me because I like being around people.  I don’t like being alone.  The Economics Building, where I work and where I study was quiet (and also getting dirty).  It seemed calm and peaceful because the weather was nice, but there just wasn’t something quite right about it.  If you were on campus, there was always a chance that protestors would come by and ask you to leave.  But, I just didn’t like that no one was around.
  • Final exams were postponed indefinitely.
    Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 12.19.37 AMThis was partly a blessing because deadlines were extended, and there was more time to study or work on projects.  But, really, not having a deadline is actually terrible for productivity.
    I didn’t know if I should study or have fun.  How long were they to be postponed?  It was highly believed among my cohort of people that exams would be postponed until January, which has major implications for students that live far from UCT (including me).  But, knowing that I have this trade report to write, I actually did try for many days within the past two weeks to write my trade report.  But, I just didn’t feel pressured to do it and I would always feel like doing something else, anything else.  Plus, I didn’t experience peer pressure that would come with sitting in the room with students, who also looked like they were working.  So, in the end, I didn’t get a lot done because I just didn’t know how I should be spending my time and unable to spend it wisely.

    • Eventually, we need to write our exams, and waiting until exams is one issue.  But, taking exams is another thing.  For international students, it’s a little bit more a hassle.  We currently know when are exams have been postponed to, but it could be possible that international students could have left for home (or other places) by that time.  I’ve had my return plane ticket bought since May.  Before we were told of the new exams dates, we were told not to extend our stays (because how long should we extend?  Exams could have taken place in January).
      If students are not able to take their exams at UCT, it’s possible for us to write our exams at our home institutions, but it has to be on the same day of the rescheduled exam and at the exact same time.  Which means, your scheduled exam could be at 3 am local time.  But, if that’s true, then your home institution wouldn’t be able to proctor the exam (not during normal business hours).  So, you would have to write the exam through the web-based ProctorU, which costs $35 per exam.  Lastly, if you are in transit or just not a position to write the exam at the exact same time (because I don’t plan to be back in Berkeley until mid-January), then you have to fill out a form, and there is probably a whole different set of rules for that too.
      I’m lucky that I am flying out past the rescheduled exam dates, but it does cut down on the time I had planned on traveling around Cape Town and South Africa.  It’s a good thing I haven’t yet booked housing accommodations for after my time in this residence hall because I would have been paying for it for an extra two weeks.
  • Food vouchers.  For students that lived in catering residence halls, where meals are prepared for them, students were issued vouchers worth R110 to purchase their meals for the day (which is not a lot for three meals a day, but you still question where UCT would get the money issue vouchers for thousands of students).  They would receive one voucher per day.  But, it was a little complicated because you couldn’t use them everywhere: only at some fast food joints and a grocery store.  It was possible to get cash back on the voucher and then use them where ever you choose, but you had to spend at least R88 first.
    During meal times, the places where these vouchers were accepted were packed.  I didn’t eat at any of those restaurants in the past two weeks because I didn’t want to deal with the lines.  But, students didn’t really have much of a choice.  They had to use the vouchers or they would have to spend their own money.  They couldn’t cook in their own residence halls either because there weren’t kitchens.  Also, there was a day when I didn’t buy groceries when I intended and had to go the next day because there were just too many people at the time, and the queues were too long.
    I’m lucky because I could still choose to eat somewhere else or buy food to cook at home.  The only negative effects I faced were the massive crowds and not really being able to eat at Nando’s (I’m a fan).

    • But to add onto this, there was a point last week when protestors even discouraged students from picking up their vouchers, in support of the workers.  They didn’t physically stop students from picking them up, but they stood there as students tried.  Peer pressure (to stand in solidarity).

The protests and the externalities have taken up my mind and my energy in the past few weeks.  I am a person that cannot stay in one place at one time.  I need to change up the scenery and be around people, but that was really difficult.  I couldn’t go to the Economics Building (even though I did for a few days) because there was always a chance that I could be asked to leave (and toilet paper was running out there too).  I couldn’t really travel anywhere outside campus because the Jammies weren’t working.  I did go to Truth Coffee Roasting (considered the one of the best coffee shops in the world), where I did manage to enjoy myself and get some work done for the day, but I couldn’t continue to pay for Uber rides and coffee expenses.  I didn’t want to stay in my room, but I had to figure out where to use the bathroom (if the toilet paper was gone in one of the bathrooms).  I felt annoyed by my floormates because of how they were not cleaning up after themselves when they cooked.  I felt trapped, and I felt alone.

I honestly don’t know what I did with my time most days, maybe just thinking and just trying to process what was happening, what the changes are, and what I should do in response.  My sleep was erratic, and I often felt frustrated with myself because I wasn’t doing my work or I wasn’t doing something fun.  I was often in limbo.  We were living day by day but constantly having to adjust when something changed.  Usually, I’m okay with living a little spontaneously, but not this kind of fluctuation of trying to just figure out where I can use the bathroom.  But, in some ways, each day was the same.  I would wake up and make breakfast (and cleaning the least amount of other people’s messes as I did it).  Then, I might try to move to a different location (coffee shop or Economics Building, as those were all that I was limited to) and try to get started on work.  Some days I just stayed in my room (or in bed because I felt too affected).  But, then it was a battle between trying to do work but getting distracted or not feeling like I need to work or wanting to do something else or trying to get my life in order (I was also picking classes for next semester, looking for jobs, replying to emails, etc.) for a few hours until it was dark or I was mentally exhausted.

On a positive note, I did do some cool things that are worth mentioning.  These are the positive externalities.  Because there weren’t people around, I had to seek out my own company from any time zone.  I was able to have really nice conversations with some of my friends, who I haven’t talked to in a long time.  I called my mom more.  I really enjoyed going to Truth (and I hope to go back there soon).  I was also able to hike to the top of Lion’s Head, which was definitely on my Cape Town Bucket List.  I wrote.  I watched some good movies, including the entire Bourne trilogy with Matt Damon.  I was able to catch up with American politics and popular music (link to Adele’s ‘Hello’).  Most importantly, I learned a lot about South Africa’s current politics and economy, which is definitely a reason why I’m here.

Overall, these externalities, though inconvenient, are necessary.  Because I can “sacrifice” two weeks of exams for a larger systematic change that will benefit a majority of the nation, I would.  Change, especially on this scale, doesn’t happen if your life isn’t affected.  This is a moment that needs to be paid attention to, and I’m thankful that I can be a part of it.

Over and out.


PS. This post is definitely more personal than many of my previous posts, but this is probably true for many people or even worse.  Like, how could students, who have been arrested or shot by rubber bullets, just expect to resume to normally and write their exams?

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