The Logic of Protest

I don’t want to become a documenter of Thabo Mbeki’s mots justes , not least because I’d be kept very busy thus. But given my activities over the past week, here’s one too priceless to let pass.

“We must stop this business of people going into the street to demonstrate about lack of delivery. These are the things that the youth used to do in the struggle against apartheid.” Mbeki, speaking at the municipal imbizo in Rustenburg. [In 13-19 May 2005 Mail and Guardian, p17]

As we’ve already established, Thabo is big on logic, which is why it’s worth just making explicit the reasoning behind his thinking here:

In the struggle against apartheid, all kinds of actions seemed reasonable. The fight for democracy condoned a wide range of noxious acts, though with heavy heart. But there is no more sanctioning this kind of behaviour now that sanctions are over. The fight has been won. There is democracy. There may not be service delivery, granted. But since going to the street to demonstrate is a right belonging to all South Africans, the universality of this right is precisely the reason that no one should exercise it.

Happily, lots of people are ignoring the President’s dazzling command of reason. Including the good people of Kennedy Road, about whom I’ve written here and here. On Friday, they took to the streets in one of Durban’s largest post-apartheid protests. There were well in excess of 3000 people, a figure made all the more impressive because every other protest in Durban since 1994 – notably the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia in 2001 – all had vast amounts of donor cash for banners, sound and transportation of warm bodies to the barricades. Friday’s protest happened without any of that, which perhaps explains why every political party is shitting on them from a great height. And all because they wanted a decent candidate to vote for in the next election, rather than the corrupt parasite who has been the one representative in Durban’s Ward 25 since before most people could vote; Yacoob Baig participated in the appalling tri-cameral system under apartheid, switching to the Democratic Alliance, before then crossing the floor to the ANC. The ANC said that the Kennedy Road poors should have gone through the ANC structures. This is hard, since the ANC structures have never bothered to return their calls, and have instead sold off the land which had been promised to the people in the informal settlement.

The key demands, then, were “Land, Housing and Baig must go”. The fuller memorandum of demands is itself a fine document. You can read the version submitted to the municipality here. The key point is in the first line: “We the people of Ward 25, loyal citizens of the Republic of South Africa, unite behind the following demands…” No party political affiliation, no claims to rights beyond the ones to which ever South African is entitled. Hell, there were even T-Shirts with Mbeki’s face on it at the march. You can see some pictures from the event here . Note the yellow troop carrier picture. Under apartheid, police cars and vehicles were all painted yellow. (The first post-sanction Lonely Planet guide to South Africa strongly advised against hiring yellow cars – silly really, since no car hire company offered the option.) After the democratic dispensation, the police rebranded themselves, with the universal blue-and-white uniform we normally associate with the people who persecute immigrants and the poor. But controlling the anger of the oppressed is an apartheid art, and the colours of this piece of crowd control equipment reflect this all too well.

Where does that leave Mbeki’s logic?