Opinion: Gugs Mhlungu looks at protest action, who/what matters and when

This week, there has been a contestation about what today’s marches represent, the ways in which they may or may not erase other civil action, particularly by poor South Africans, who having been failed by the state, their employers, and other South Africans are often compelled to protest. It shouldn’t surprise us, because how we talk about protest is also defined by inequality, and coloured by the dominant narratives in the country.

Former US President Barack Obama, speaking in September last year, said:

Protest and love of country do not merely co-exist, they inform each other

Former US President, Barack Obama

Obama’s statement highlights how, in addition to being a vitally important right, the right to protest is about more than one self, it can be about love for country, love for one’s people (and whether that includes people who are unlike you), and often (as we’ve seen in the country) about what is promised to citizens, what they know is due to them, especially poor people who have so many of their rights curtailed or abused. Many of us, whether we intend to or not, also use protest to gauge what matters to whom, what issues are given legitimacy and which ones are thought to not be legitimate.

Those raising issues of inconsistency in how today’s marches are being treated, either by the media and or other organisations such as public universities and the private sector, are very correctly pointing out the glaring inequality in how some protests are deemed good or useful, and how it is most certainly not university fee or labour protests, despite the fact that the latter also do the work of holding the state accountable. Does that mean other marches should not happen? No, however if we are going to claim to be allies, we must also be willing to accept criticism on how and when our activism falls short or causes harm - it’s part of the work of being better allies. To demand that previous shortcomings not be raised is simply not honest and is also part of the issues we have about who shows up and when.

Many continue to talk about protest in terms of the stories we’ve told ourselves or that others tell themselves. An often repeated story is that, unlike other citizens of other countries,. South Africans are “lazy” and “complacent” and would rather call in into radio stations and/or take to facebook or tweet than actually mobilise, when in fact protests are quite commonplace. So commonplace in fact that the unverified and seemingly wildly in correct assertion that SA sees 30 protests a day made the rounds a few years ago.

Read: Are there 30 service delivery protests a day in South Africa?

So poor South Africans are “out in the streets” and “mobilising” and taking their grievances to the people who need to them almost daily and yet middle class centred public discussions erase poor people’s activism, activism that they simply have no choice but to partake in given that they contin-ue to be failed by status quo.

Since poor South Africans are “out there” nearly daily, it should not be surprising that there will be issues when seemingly “new” protests attempt to erase poor people’s activism, or claim there is no culture of activism when in fact there is- it’s just not broadly middle class. It is also dishonest to pretend that civil society as a rule doesn’t show up- there are organisations that have shown up consistently and are showing up today as well. Nonetheless, what has looked like deliberate erasure of poor people’s activism, as others call for South Africans to “stand together”, is rightly met with suspicion and concern when phrases such as “SA Unites” are used because which SA? Where was it during Fees Must Fall, which it could be argued represented a broader uniting of SA and articulated the issues with the current government, particularly it’s continued failure to address systemic and institutional issues.

While not everyone is “new” (and there is nothing wrong with being new to the work of protesting) what newbies, certainly better resourced newcomers, cannot do is lecture students, and other poor South Africans about this being the time to stand up, when people have been standing up, often by themselves, and been told they are entitled or ungrateful. It matters that labour and service delivery protests are met with such contempt, and much of the criticism regarding that has been silenced this week. It is completely reasonable and correct that people who feel like they didn’t have support when they needed it, while they also held government accountable, feel like they might sit today out and let someone else do the heavy lifting for a change. ANC supporters and members while cor-rectly pointing out the absence of some other parties and organisations on matters like Fees Must Fall are themselves (or the party they support) complicit in failing to show up at crucial times such as Marikana and Life Esidimeni - again where overwhelmingly poor Black people were shown little to no solidarity.

In 1993, Edward Said said: “I have no patience with the position that “we” should only or mainly be concerned with what is “ours” and much of the big questions in the country this week and today are precisely about who the imagined “we” is(and who is routinely excluded) and what the imagined “ours” is. The various pro and against Zuma marches did not create divisions or inequalities, they simply amplified the deep ones that exist in society anyway, and are in fact part of the difficult work that needs to be done.


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