On the Politics of Protest in Cape Town

A few weeks ago the City of Cape Town was rocked by a spate of road blockades and other significant protests. Certain liberal NGOs have joined the DA in condemning the protests claiming that they are violent and motivated by political party agendas.

To be sure, this is nothing new. Protests in the form of marches, the burning of tyres, and road blockades, have been happening every week throughout the City for years. The significant majority go completely unreported in the mainstream media and unnoticed by government officials.

What seems to be different about recent protests, however, is that they’ve begun to bleed out of township boundaries and into spaces that effect Cape Town’s middle class. The blocking of Duinefontein, Vanguard and Landsdowne roads a couple weeks ago by residents of Sweet Home informal settlement and the recent closure of the N2 freeway by residents of Europe, Kanana, and Barcelona settlements, are important examples of this shift.

On the 13th of August, protesters succeeded again in blocking key arterial roads in the City: Duinefontein, Landsdowne and Mew Way as well as attempting to repeat Friday’s closure of the N2, this time near Khayelitsha and by Sir Lowry’s Pass. More and more shack settlements seem to be joining in each day.

The root cause of this shift in tactics by protesters is that, for them, there has been little or no improvement in their lives since 1994 because neither the African National Congress (ANC) nor the DA seems to have the political will to listen to them. When communities focus on legal socio-economic rights battles, when they engage in legal marches, and even when they block roads and burn tires in their own communities, they are generally ignored by the powers that be.

For those who have begun to take civil disobedience into middle class spaces, the logic goes that it is better to be vilified and taken notice of than to be given ‘lip service delivery’ from the government. In other words, the escalation of protests by poor black communities is an indication of the complete lack of democracy for anyone who can’t afford to purchase their right to a voice in the elite public sphere.

A number of actors have entered into the politics of popular protest in Cape Town. There are the key political parties and their affiliates in the youth leagues, civic organisations, ward committees and development forums. These organisations, while they may have some popular support in protesting communities, generally are only present when the media arrives so that they can score political points by vilifying the opposition.

Sometimes, as in the recent road blockades organised by activists in the Sweet Home settlement, political party members are also involved in the mobilisation. However, in such cases, deeper research will confirm that these political party actors are merely piggybacking off of genuine community grievances which government (whether ANC or DA) is consistently refusing to address. This is why rank and file ANC members protest against the DA in Cape Town and against their own party throughout the rest of the country.

The closing of roads, burning of tyres and destruction of government property (all by themselves constituting non-violent acts of civil disobedience) almost always have the tacit support of the settlement where the protest originates – even if sometimes only a small portion of the settlement is actively engaging in such acts of civil disobedience.

These protests, especially when they are coordinated to have a maximum disruptive effect on the socio-economic life of the middle class and elite, can have a profoundly positive effect in the long run. Contrary to media propaganda, there is nothing inherently violent about the destruction of inanimate objects. Yet even when some of these actions lead to a certain amount of violence (such as self-defence against routinely vicious actions by the police and other forms of paramilitary violence available to the state), there can be favourable outcomes for society such as halting the disruptive flow of capitalist accumulation or pressuring the ruling class to make various emergency concessions.

All over the world, including recently in places like Bolivia, Argentina, Egypt and Spain, mass civil disobedience (whether violent or non-violent) has significantly altered the course of history resulting in the toppling of dictators, significant changes to economic policies and even turning public opinion against the perpetrators of oppression against the poor.

The Egyptian revolution is a case in point. If protesters had not physically battled the police and paramilitary gangs, thrown rocks, engaged in thousands of road blockades, and burned down dozens of government buildings which were key symbols of the dictatorship, Mubarak would have likely remained in power for the rest of his life.

It is quite concerning, therefore, that a collection of Cape Town-based activist oriented NGOs have been making a significant effort to vilify certain forms of protest that do no fit within its directors’ and funders’ view of what constitute ‘acceptable’ forms of protest.

To be sure, many of these NGOs can claim important victories. The Treatment Action Campaign, for instance, has had a significant impact in helping turn the tide from AIDS denialism to a more proactive HIV/AIDS health policy at the national level. However, just as often, well-funded and publicised protests led by NGOs have gone nowhere, fast. Despite bringing more than 10,000 people into the streets of Cape Town last year to demand that the state build one library per school, Equal Education has not been able to compel the government to build any more libraries. Instead, the Western Cape is now closing down 27 schools in the province. Legal protests have done nothing to prevent this from happening.

Of course, this is not to say that legal and well funded mass protests are worthless. They definitely have the ability to have a significant effect. Yet, when poor black communities cannot afford to hire 100 buses (costing as much as R100,000) to bring enough people to parliament to make a difference, then other protest tactics must also be considered. When the ‘proper’ channels of protest (including legal challenges, petitions, marches, etc.) are tried year after year to no avail, oppressed communities have every right to engage in other more disruptive acts of civil disobedience.

One of the best examples of real immediate success from illegal protest tactics was the 2007 blockade of the N2 by thousands of residents of the Joe Slovo shack settlement in Langa. The community was resisting the then Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s flagship N2 Gateway housing project which was attempting to evict 20,000 Joe Slovo residents to ‘temporary relocation areas’ in Delft, a bleak and underdeveloped township on the far outskirts of the city.

After authorities ignored all of their various legal protests and attempts to negotiate, the residents’ blockade of the N2 became the key turning point in their struggle. The blockade, a statement that reverberated through public opinion, eventual destroyed the state’s political will to actually try to evict the residents.

Unfortunately, many of the leaders of NGO based civil society moralistically lambaste disruptive tactics in protests here in Cape Town while hypocritically forgetting that they simultaneously support those same tactics in other struggles throughout the world. For instance, respected activist Zackie Achmat attacked Abahlali baseMjondolo’s non-violent but disruptive Informal Settlement Strike in 2010 while a year later hosting Israeli Yonatan Pollak from Anarchists Against the Wall, a respected activist who consistently engages in disruptive and sometimes violent civil disobedience protests against the Israeli occupation.

During the recent protests, Vuyiseka Dubula, General Secretary of the TAC, penned an article in which she called for protests “built on alliances, strategy, clear realistic demands and the genuine intent to improve the lives of people”. The concern with this assertion is not that alliances, strategy, demands or intent to improve people’s lives are wrong. Instead, the problem here is the self-righteous assumption that large numbers of shackdwellers who are protesting are somehow incapable of thinking for themselves, lack ‘genuine intent’ to improve people’s lives and are, in fact, actively trying to destroy their communities.

Whether or not the ANC Youth League or any other political actor is involved one way or another in these protests, the truth is that people are protesting as a strategy to force authorities to listen to their demands, to connect with other communities living under similar conditions and to improve their own lives. It is nothing but patronising to assume otherwise. This is the case even when politicians are arrested and get all the media attention for participating in the acts of civil disobedience thereby diluting the authentic grievances of the community.

Thus, what Vuyiseka, TAC and its affiliated NGOs are really saying is that communities should protest their way, should build alliances under their umbrella, and should make only ‘realistic’ (reformist) demands that are acceptable to their vein of sectarian liberal politics. Yet their approach at donor-funded activism often does not work or is unaffordable to shackdwellers – thereby dictating who can afford to protest and actively preventing the formation of alternatives.

If we as supporters of and activists for social change fall for such narrow-minded politics and begin believing that there is only one form of acceptable struggle, then it becomes very difficult to build any sort of unity when we are attempting to change the status quo.

Of course, we must still oppose authoritarianism, recklessness and personal or party political opportunism when it emerges within popular struggles. Violence for the sake of violence is nothing but dangerous and regressive. Stoning buses that try to cross through the erected barricades is reckless and does not help protesters’ cause. However, to oppose road blockades, a key protest tactic of the poor, as a principle, is to condemn a genuine mass demand for social inclusion and relegate social change to donor-funded NGOs.

The need for many forms of struggle is even more apparent in the wake of the massacre by police of striking workers in Marikana. Workers doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, fed up with their mistreatment by Lonmin management, their extremely low wages and furious with a union that continuously sides with the bosses rather than their own members, decided to go on an unprotected strike.

Despite the unfortunate violence that occurred when workers attempted to defend their right to strike, their willingness to come together and challenge their horrible working conditions is laudable. We must not forget that the real origin of the violence emanates from capitalist system itself and the authoritarian manner in which government and the police protect this system of oppression.

And yet, even though not a single police officer was injured on the 16th of August when about 34 strikers were killed and 78 injured, we live in a society where government, media and many South African citizens vilify the workers and even go so far as to say that they deserved to be massacred for having the audacity to defend their strike and refuse to leave a hilltop that was not even on Lonmin property.

While the media focuses on the knobkerries and pangas carried by some strikers as well as racist and disparaging representations of traditional healers, they don’t even bother to report that the police had encircled the protesters, kettled them and purposely left them with nowhere else to run except straight into the barrage of police gunfire. Nor did they mention that injured (but alive workers) were crushed by police Nyalas after the bloodbath had ended.

Meanwhile, these same NGO representatives who decry the defensive violence of some service delivery protesters, have refused to come out in defence of the Marikana strikers. They’ve kept remarkably quiet during the first actual massacre in post-1994 South Africa. In some cases, they have even joined the government, Lonmin management, NUM and the media itself in purposely obfuscating the facts by focusing on the ‘shared responsibility’ they place on the workers for the situation.

It remains to be seen what the aftermath of the Marikana Massacre will bring. Will there be a silver lining and will workers at Lonmin and the wider Marikana community continue to resist the violence of the mining bosses and the government? If they resist (whether using non-violent tactics or some form of defensive violence), we must hope that South Africans will realise who is ultimately responsible for the everyday violence workers endure. We must turn to the strikers in solidarity rather than with self-righteous liberal posturing.

The anti-apartheid struggle employed a diversity of strategies and tactics, of organisations and social movements, to overthrow the National Party and usher in the 1994 political compromise. Many of these tactics were unabashedly violent in nature. The transition, therefore, would not have been possible if a small group of vanguardists had been able to seize the moral high ground for themselves and force all groups to accept one modus operandi.

In the post-1994 era, where many will assert that neo-apartheid remains a defining feature of the South African socio-political landscape, a truly united democratic front will also have to be open to many different ways of struggling for change.

•  This article first appeared at Amandla blog.

Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based social justice activist. He is also a founder of the non-profit organisation, Children of South Africa. Read other articles by Jared.