The F-word: Souls for sale in our protest nation

2013-05-01 10:00

A troubling thought assailed me at the beginning of this week.

The Star newspaper reported on Monday that it had helped avert “a potentially violent” march set against objectors to a R1.6?billion industrial-hub development in Diepsloot, north of Joburg.

What troubled me was not so much that the march could be violent, those are a dime a dozen unfortunately. My consternation was that the organisers of the march, the local SA National Civic Association (Sanco), had asked for money from the developers of the hub, Century Plaza Development.

According to The Star, Sanco admitted to asking for the money and Century Plaza Development agreed to give it, “but both claim the march was merely to show support for the new industrial hub”.

The story goes on to say that loud-hailers were hired at the company’s cost and cars drove around the streets of Diepsloot calling out names of the local chamber of commerce leaders, who were accused of wanting to block the development of the hub and therefore perpetuate unemployment and poverty.

The accused leaders said they simply wanted to be consulted but were not opposed to the development.

At issue here is not whether the industrial hub is good or bad for residents or business development in Diepsloot, or whether the business chamber is truthful when it says it merely wanted to be consulted. It is not even about Sanco or anyone else’s right to protest.

Rather, it’s about the integrity of a sponsored protest, especially when such a protest has a realistic chance of turning violent.

One has to ask how many other so-called service-delivery uprisings, organised under the pretence of being community protests, were paid for by those with competing interests to those who were being marched on. To put it differently, how much, in monetary terms, does it cost someone in “the community” to be angry with someone or against something?

Given the violence and wanton destruction of property attendant to these marches, sometimes catching the innocent in the crossfire, we cannot continue being so naive as to believe that some of these actions were simply a spontaneous boiling over of anger.

For as long as nobody is made accountable for destruction of property and loss of life – until we jettison the idea that dealing harshly with people who loot and destroy property is not a right-wing concept but rule of law – “service-delivery” angst will continue to be lucrative.

Those not willing to take responsibility for their actions hide behind the convenient conflation of the right to protest, and their responsibility to ensure that they act within the bounds of the law or, failing which, of common decency.

Just because the apartheid government used to crack down hard on “riots” – as it called popular uprisings against injustices – does not mean that a democratic state should look the other way when people behave like savages.

The Star’s story puts it in no uncertain terms that some of the so-called community activists are nothing but political hired guns, happy to “be angry” at anything as long as the price is right.

I have no doubt that there are many community leaders whose integrity is impeachable.

Then again, who will blame Sanco and Century Plaza Development for their alliance? It was inevitable.

Post-apartheid South Africa was built on captains of capital and struggle stalwarts finding each other and realising that together they could acquire more.

With so many having gained materially from partaking in the struggle and many businesses improving their reputations overnight by handing out shares to a few blacks, we should have foreseen that those on the lower rungs would also want their struggle dividend.

However, if this dividend means that those who have always believed that everyone and everything can be bought or sold are vindicated, then the struggle to own our souls has just begun.

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