On Tuesday November 22 people all over South Africa wore black clothes to mark their displeasure at the Protection of Information Bill that was due to be voted on in the National Assembly. The so-called Black Tuesday initiative seems to have been the brainchild of Yusuf Abramjee and Primedia. It was supported by a large number of South Africans, myself included, marking it as one of the more successful protests in recent years.
But as with every popular protest (Slutwalk comes to mind), you get the cavillers and the naysayers — those who take to their columns, their blogs, and their social media to croak out their opposition to whatever initiative is currently enjoying support. In the case of Black Tuesday, the croaking took the following forms:
1) Every protest must contextualise itself within the greater struggle against capitalism / patriarchy / the illuminati lizards. This protest only addressed a single issue and therefore I will not support it.
2) There are greater issues to worry about in the world such as poverty / starvation / inequality / the theft of our brains by the illuminati lizards. Where were you slacktivists when the Verdwaal Four died of starvation and exposure outside Lichtenburg?
3) Journalists are generally lazy / lying / thieving / in league with the illuminati lizards. Why have they only woken up so late to this issue? I don’t like journalists and therefore I will not support this protest.
4) Did you really believe that wearing black was going to change Parliament’s mind? Well, it didn’t, so nyah nyah.
It is undoubtedly true that there are more pressing and heartbreaking issues in this world than a couple of less-than-ideal clauses in a bill before the South African Parliament. But it remains curiously difficult to summon much collective indignation for these. This is not, I believe, due to the fact that we are all callous or complacent monsters, but rather to the incredibly monolithic and daunting nature of these challenges.
When we confront issues like “patriarchy” or “hunger” or “inequality” we find ourselves staring at a vast and intractable cliff-face of injustice that seems almost impossible to break down. These are problems that have always been with us, and possibly always will. And yes, undoubtedly, it remains our duty to do what we can to ameliorate these problems, whether we are Bill Gates donating billions to protect children from malaria, or a single individual donating R10 to a charity feeding scheme.
But it is almost impossible to raise public indignation to a flashpoint against issues that are huge, timeless and seemingly insoluble. Rather like the beauty queen who promises to devote her reign to achieving world peace, we soon begin to suspect we may have bitten off more than we can chew.
And just like that beauty queen should rather pick one small issue to tackle, we are more inclined to take on manageable challenges that we might actually be able to overcome. Because that’s the thing about the Protection of Information Bill — it is still possible to change it. The bill has not yet been passed into law, and if sufficient public indignation is raised the government may yet amend it, particularly if international investors become uneasy.
That is the main difference between this issue and that of the Verdwaal Four. While the circumstances that led to those children’s deaths require urgent investigation and attention, no amount of public protest is going to make them any less dead. The tragedy has already occurred, and remains, horrifically, irreversible. The Protection of Information Bill is not irreversible and will hopefully never become so.
As for not liking journalists and therefore choosing not to support their protest — if you don’t know that a free, unshackled, nosy, interfering, dogged and upstart media is the biggest guarantee of your own personal freedom you could ever hope for, you almost deserve to live in a society that doesn’t have one. Yes, the bill has been pending for many months, but to say that journalists have not taken action until now is woefully ignorant. Journalists and writers have been raising the issue in the media ever since it was first mooted, and several protests and vigils have been held outside Parliament to protest against it.
Regarding the fourth criticism about whether any of the Black Tuesday activists really believed that they were going to change the way the National Assembly voted, that is absolutely not the point. Did the 20 000 women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 really believe that they were going to change the Pass Laws? No, they probably didn’t. And no, they did not succeed in their goal. In fact, the restrictions on the movement of black women grew steadily more draconian over the next 38 years. But we still remember and celebrate their heroism every single year, and their slogan “You strike a woman, you strike a rock” has entered the national consciousness. Nobody asks why they bothered.
When you live in a democracy, you get to vote on who will lead the country every five years or so. If you don’t like what the ruling party is doing during those five years, there are various options open to you. You can mark your displeasure by throwing rocks, planting bombs or shooting people, or you can stage a non-violent protest. In this particular case violence was not called for because despite what the more hysterically inclined among us believe, the secrecy bill is not in fact “exactly like apartheid”. But it’s not good either, and that is why Black Tuesday was what it was — a non-violent protest against a government that is attempting to take away our freedom of access to information.
It was an important and necessary show of solidarity for the journalists who could be deprived of their liberty for 20 years at a time for publishing the truth. I have never apologised for my decision to participate in that show of solidarity, and I never will.