Friday was a political and civil watershed in South Africa. For the first time since the dawn of democracy, the average white person felt enraged enough at what happened after President Jacob Zuma reshuffled his cabinet two weeks back, to contemplate getting out onto the streets and making their voices heard.
Inevitably, there were naysayers suggesting that whities demonstrating would be viewed with suspicion by black South Africans, because all they were doing was trying to protect their white privilege, rather than being truly concerned about the impact on the poorest of the poor, who have been living in penury since before 1994. A tumbling Rand makes that next overseas trip so much more expensive, doesn’t it?
The cherry on the cake, was Max du Preez tweeting “imagine what could have been if we white South Africans were as outraged at apartheid, torture and death squads as we are at Zuma right now”. If this comment was intended to engender regret in white people who have never marched in protest before, or shame them into not marching, then all Max was doing, was feed the trolls who view emerging white protest with suspicion. And anybody who has played the “if only I had .” game before, will know just how pointless it is. That lost opportunity can never be recovered, but what’s to stop people from grasping the nettle now?
Despite the numerous grinches on social media platforms, and the overt attempts by the ANC government to discourage protest action on the day, South Africans responded magnificently to the calls by civil society organisations, led by Save South Africa, to take to the streets and to call for President Zuma to step down.
In Cape Town alone, estimates range between 50 000 and 80 000, for the crowd that descended upon the city centre for the march to Parliament, with government sources disingenuously suggesting the tally was a mere 8 000.
Thirty-five thousand people marched from Church Square in Pretoria to the Union Building, that quintessential seat of colonial power, to take the battle to President Zuma’s office, despite the assertion by newly appointed police minister Fikile Mbalula at an ANC Youth League (ANCYL) rally, that only 10 000 of the “richest fat cats” marched there to “protect their white privilege”.
But these were the big marches in the major centres. There were numerous other smaller marchers in cities and towns around South Africa, where ordinary people – black, white, coloured, Indian from all walks of life – came out to call for President Zuma to step down, and the mood was festive almost, recalling those interminably long and winding queues in April 1994, when the vast majority of South Africans cast their ballot for the very first time in their lives, with hope for a bright future. It was like that all over again: lively camaraderie and joyous engagement irrespective of skin colour, or station in life.
With the exception of a fracas outside Luthuli House, when a DA flag-toting man was brutally beaten and kicked by ANCYL thugs, the protest around the country were peaceful, and even the ANC government had to acknowledge that, despite acting police commissioner Kgomosto Phahlane’s sinister warning the night before, that the marchers would be rigorously policed.
In the Helderberg, upwards of 2 000 people lined the one side of the N2, between the Victoria Road intersection, and Gordon High School. The mood of the crowd was festive, and defiant at the same time. Ages ranged from pre-teens to senior citizens, and the demographic belied the prediction that the protests would be white-dominated. The crowds was pretty much 50% white and 50% people of colour.
A smaller group of around 400 gathered on the N2 opposite Hottentots Holland High School, and it was equally diverse, festive, vocal and defiant. This group went to the lengths of blocking the N2 for periods, using traffic cones, to make their point, hastily removing them whenever ordered to do so by law enforcement, and putting them back once the cops had moved on.
Passing motorists engaged in the newly emerged phenomenon of drive-by protest, hooting stridently in support of the protesters. Once more a scan of the faces hooting as they drove by, revealed that it wasn’t just white people tooting their support.
The question on everybody’s lips is: “did it make a difference, and will to be sustained?”
It is inevitable that what happened on Friday will not cause President Zuma to fold up his tent and resign in embarrassment, nor will it motivate the ANC to recall him.
What it will do, is keep what is happening in our country front and centre in everybody’s consciousness, and it will also keep it on the radar of the international investor community.
People who never really understood how and why apartheid was finally defeated will say this and all future protest marches are pointless, but that belies the significant role played by the United Democratic Front’s (UDF) indefatigable rolling mass action in the 1980s.
What the protest movement now needs to do, is to take a leaf out the UDF’s book, and if the march to the Union Building planned for today, Wednesday April 12, gets as many people out into the street as did Friday’s march, then maybe it already has.
For it is only sustained action that will foster this fragile sense of unity in protest, that seems to have transcended racial boundaries for the first time in our young democracy.
Perhaps this is the more that draws us together as a nation, that we have sought so futilely for the past 23 years.
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