Have some sympathy for those who resort to violent protests

2016-02-21 19:29

I've been part of many protests. Some peaceful, and others violent. From them I've learnt to respect those who resort to violence even though I dislike violence. Maybe this does not make sense but I hope it will after reading this.

Thembisa Maqeda is a friend of mine, older than my mother but I still consider her a friend than a mother. We studied at UWC together doing the same degree as part-time students. She gave me lifts home to khayelitsha as she also lived in Khayelitsha. She has several university qualifications and is part of the black middle-class.

I have a lot of respect for her since she is a mother, wife, employee, student and has other community commitments that she must fulfill such as church initiatives. But one evening she complained about TR Section people who always block Mew Way road when protesting for better services.

This inconvenienced motorists like her, and other working class people who just wanted to get home after a long day at work. Understand that Maqeda goes to class after work. So I understood her frustration.

I lived in a shack for 14 years in Cape Town having to deal with rodents, floods, fires, inadequate municipal services, and crime. So my views were different. I didn't like the violence such as burning a government vehicle carrying matric transcripts.

But I understood what had driven people to such. When TR Section had one of their violent protests, community leaders in Khayelitsha gathered at Andile Msizi Hall to discuss ways to resolve their issues since the closure of Mew Way road affected almost everyone in Khayelitsha.

Leadership of the Khayelitsha Development Forum and other actors including political parties were in the meeting when TR Section protesters stormed Andile Msizi Hall breaking windows at the hall. I ran towards the door and left the meeting.

One of the most important lessons I learnt from that meeting and from Maqeda is that too often we look at things through the lens of privilege. The pain of TR Section residents didn't mean anything until it disturbed the privilege of middle-class leaders of many of the community forums.

We were sitting in a meeting discussing poor people led by who? Middle-class people whose interests would prevail at the conclusion of that meeting. The entire leadership arrived in nice cars to discuss poor people who live in shacks. Then the leadership goes to their warm homes while the poor go back to shacks with a promise not to disturb the privileged.

When I left Khayelitsha, TR Section had not had a violent protest in while because they had, through much violence and intimidation, ensured that one of their own residents became a Councillor. Should violence be the way people get their legitimate demands met though?

It seems to be. A similar question was asked to Former President Mbeki while visiting Ireland. He was asked how Ireland could celebrate independence without celebrating the violence it took to get it. Mbeki said that sometimes violence becomes your only alternative. Submit or fight. So before asking what would Mandela do if he were the students at UCT, think. Mandela is said to have jumped for joy when MK was able to build and detonate their first bomb aimed at sabotaging the infrastructure that was used to support a minority.

So maybe Mandela would understand why students have resorted to violence after their legitimate demands were not met. Sometimes peaceful protests work and sometimes they just do not. If you marched to politicians in South Africa, handed a memorandum, and went home, that could result in nothing.

Often people resort to protest action after failed engagements with institutional actors. In 2003 when our teachers tried for a long time to get textbooks and proper classrooms from the then ANC & NP's Marthinus van Schalkwyk whose provincial government refused to meet our demands, we took to the streets. The first hurdle was getting to Cape Town CBD where government offices were. We asked Metro Rail for help, they refused so we hijacked a train.

Days fighting on the streets protesting, hijacking a train, looting, and slashing tires on government vehicles, we finally got textbooks and the school was moved to better premises. The point here is that looting is horrible and so is destroying public property that will cost a lot of money to fix. But what else could we do if the government was not willing to address our legitimate demands? No child should ever have to resort to such in order to get an education but we live in a country where exclusion persists. Surely you cannot possibly suggest that students should accept that.. Even if burning a library when you protest for a new school does not make sense to you or the people burning it.

I've been to many peaceful protests, they were nice but we never got what we wanted. Ask Mzonke Poni who probably holds a record for organising most service delivery protests in Cape Town. We marched together for land with Abahlali BaseMjondolo. I don't have a title deed today and I don't see any of the people we marched with in proper homes.

But when we used violence to protest for textbooks, we got them. And when we marched to then Libode Mayor who was accused of misusing public money, armed with Pick heads and spades, the corrupt politician had no choice but to leave office or be burnt alive with the Libode Town Hall.

So if we want peaceful protests, then perhaps we should start addressing legitimate demands before people feel that only violence will force institutional actors to listen. I do not regret any violent protest that I have been part of. I'd do it all over again when faced with an institution that does not see my pain.

While I do not expect you to be cheering when students are throwing petrol bombs at buildings, I do hope you will understand that we have not cultivated a culture where peaceful protests results in legitimate demands being met. Very few actually get that. No, we are not all Gandhi. And check your privilege before telling people how to express their pain.

Maqeda has had to deal with such violence in her community and at work where striking workers once locked her up as wage negotiations were not producing the worker's desired outcome. She was representing the employer in those negotiations. So I hope today she will look at protesting shack dwellers with some sympathy, not just anger at how they are being a nuisance to her middle-class existence.

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