Revolutionary Thinking: Improving Protest Culture in South Africa

I stand in the pouring rain drenched head to toe through a thick rain jacket I thought too highly of. In the front of the crowd, a man stands making the claim that this downpour is our friend. He says us being out in the rain shows UCT management we do not do these things for fun, we are serious. His words ring true. The people are angry and want to have their voices heard. The desires of these people were not met for the second year in a row. Fees have yet to fall.

Nearly half a year later I now meet with my fellow committee members of the UCT gaming and anime society to plan for our yearly event, called UCON. It was cancelled last year due to the closing of the university during the FeesMustFall protests and now we run the risk with exactly the same thing happening this year. “What if FeesMustFall happens again?” they ask. A common question which always holds its weight throughout the country. It is a topic the people loath for they do not believe it will go anywhere but rather repeat itself endlessly. I venture into this topic to see how we can improve protest action, not abolish it. I wanted to voice some of my opinions while exploring other avenues to improve general protest action, an act the people take to by default as it is viewed, I think, as the be all end all.

The blunt truth to it all is this: Movements like FeesMustFall need public support and high numbers.

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A picture outside parliament during the 2015 FeesMustFall protests. Picture by Luther de Lange.

If we look at history, one of the success stories is that of the gender equality marches in Iceland. I believe the reason behind the success is the sheer volume of bodies the movement managed to gather. With over 90% of the population in any given situation, whether that of students, workers of a singular company or the population of an entire nation, there is no doubt that the momentum of the crowd will carry itself right to the end.

The other important aspect to the Icelandic marches is that the power did not lie in the gathering itself. It was the discussion held with others involved in student movements across UCT that reminded me of the additional aspects of non-violent demonstration. I had completely forgotten about one of the most effective, and in my opinion underappreciated, methods of protest: The downing of tools. We all know how the ZumaMustFall campaign has failed us. Twice. Both occasions were calls to mobilize to the street to show anger for a mere day. Some of the major hooks was to be different from FeesMustFall by being anti-white-discrimination and anti-vandalism, which it managed to achieve but did not showcase how that could make a political movement more successful. Where the movement failed, where it always failed, was the inconsistency and lack of dedication to the cause. If the movement had acted in the same way as the Icelandic protests, with a greater emphasis on the downing of tools and causing havoc on the economy, there would be more pressure on the government to act according to the will of the people. It is here I feel the need to state that I understand the difficulty for many poor South Africans to devote themselves to these causes that endanger their very important or hard to come by jobs.

After all, there has always been an emphasis on the relation to the workers. Student movements choose to be in solidarity with external struggles, including calls for better working conditions and wages. In return, this has given students the ability to affect the economy with action taken by the workers to support their disruptions with the ceasing of work around campus or even in the greater area. This is also a difficult relationship to explore. A curious UCT traffic official was speaking to me about the situation on campus when he saw me filming on campus. His views were not entirely supportive of recent actions yet do present valid problems. Unity is difficult to achieve when there is such a polarization of views but with movements for the people, this is what happens. We need to keep the radicalism while still keeping the support and numbers.

I was fortunate enough to pick up this topic during the transition into a new student representative council (SRC) year. This transition is a real world example of my cries for organisation. On Thursday June 15th the new SRC sent out a mass email to detail their plans for the upcoming year, all of which were radical in nature. Most importantly, it called for continued support for the FeesMustFall movement. People from all walks of life have always emphasized the need for non-violent change through conversation and, well, here it is. We have this opportunity at the highest possible level at UCT, so there should no longer be any excuse not to support and engage from those who held these views.

In the end, I do not wish for the eradication of these protest movements. I simply wish that these thoughts cause a reflection of protest culture in South Africa and gives substance to taking to the streets. Much of what I said is grasped easily by leftists but as someone who spends much of his time critical of these movements and protest actions I hope that those who also lie on the edge or in non-radical spheres will hear my pleas for unity and support. I hope that it gives these people a bit more insight to the world of direct action. I hope that one day when I stand in the rain again it will be part of the final push towards our goals in a movement supported and not the radical few who have wasted too much energy fighting those we hope to help.

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