27 July 2021 | Story Nombulelo Shange and Ntando Sindane | Photo Unsplash
Opinion article by Nombulelo Shange, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, and Ntando Sindane, Lecturer in the Department of Private Law, University of the Free State

Opinion article by Nombulelo Shange, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, and Ntando Sindane, Lecturer in the Department of Private Law, University of the Free State

The recent protests were originally sparked by the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma. His arrest might have started the protests, but the protests have arguably spiralled into something far greater. These protests/riots mirror the consequences of what happens when people live in extreme poverty, joblessness, and brazen inequality.  

On Monday evening, 12 July, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation and condemned the actions of the protesters. Ramaphosa missed the opportunity to appeal to the protesters as people; to identify with their daily struggles and speak to them from the space of genuine concern and empathy. Instead, President Ramaphosa delegitimised the protests, claiming that the violence and damage to property goes against the nature of protest. The resultant outcome of Ramaphosa’s utterances is that it has succeeded in whitewashing protest and, in some way, eroding emancipatory revolutions such as our own fight against colonialism and apartheid. 

A brief history of protest in South Africa

Protests are disruptive in their very nature – when this disruption is responded to by the deployment of state machinery (such as the army), it follows that the protests culminate into utter violence, and even bloodshed. It is important to note that protests are the product of severe discontent – people are waging mass actions precisely because they feel that their voices are not being heard, and these mass mobilisations may take the form of violence. Various anti-apartheid movements have adopted similar strategies in the fight for freedom. The fight for freedom and against apartheid colonialism was won through mass mobilisation, and this included riots and protests. It is indeed true that liberation movements have used protest as a decisive tool to resist racist apartheid polity and demand the non-racial and democratic South Africa that we see today. Such a reality (and historical background) makes it somewhat bizarre to comprehend how a leader of the liberation movement can use apartheid-like characterisations to denote and refer to protests and protesters. To be sure, President Ramaphosa’s articulation is emblematic of deep-seated forgetfulness within the ruling party, and the political elite at its helm. 

MK and Poqo (from the ANC and PAC respectively) were labelled terrorists by the government of the National Party. Even former President Nelson Mandela, now a global symbol for peace and reconciliation, has led and engaged in protest action to fight for the rights and dignity of marginalised South Africans. Of course, history lends perspective, and as a result, it would be incorrect to suggest that Nelson Mandela, MK and Poqo were inherently violent, because hindsight allows us to understand that the nature of the struggle in which they were engaged made ‘violence’ necessary.

A deepened discourse about violence reveals that poverty is far more violent and dehumanising than the violence that Ramaphosa was condemning this week. Upon closer inspection, Ramaphosa would be empowered if someone were to teach him that protests offer some hope for change, no matter how small, while doing nothing launches people deeper and deeper into poverty and repression. These are the difficult decisions that many had to make then and now. Poverty is the highest form of violence – it imputes indignity, it kills, and recreates itself as it transmutes into different forms between generations. The violence of poverty is evidenced in its ability to dehumanise people by stealing from them their humanity and their capability to lead a full lifestyle. This is a sort of violence that is hardly spoken about, because in a capitalist society, the only violence that is heeded is one that disturbs profit maximisation and the accumulation of private property. 

Whitewashing protest

Protesters are not looting because it is fun, protest is not pretty, and it comes at great personal risk to the protesters and their families. To invoke a Fanonian expression: “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” People engage in protest action because the South African government protects capitalist structures over its people and has perpetuated a hungry society. People are hungry for resources, real empowerment, education, and economic freedom. To label their actions as illegitimate glosses over their pain like it is meaningless and it whitewashes protest, thus negating our own protest history. 

President Ramaphosa’s discrediting of these actions also further criminalises the actions of what has been a patient citizenry that had to grapple with staggering unemployment, with the youth feeling the biggest brunt at 73,3% unemployment. When President Ramaphosa painted the protestors in this light, he also reinforced a dangerous anti-black, anti-poor sentiment which Steve Biko referred to as ‘Swart Gevaar’, which translates to black danger. During apartheid, it was the fear that black people would take over and threaten the safety and security of white people. Today, on social media pages and in the president’s address it is the fear that the poor, who are still predominately black, will threaten the ‘peace and stability’ of the minority middle class and elite through their protest action. 

No peace while poverty prevails 

The reality is that there is no peace and security while poverty prevails, and to restore stability without dismantling the capitalism system that brought us colonialism and apartheid, is to damn the majority back into poverty. These violent events will continue to take place and will become more and more violent with every passing moment if poverty is not eradicated as a matter of urgency. 

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