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#occupysouthafrica – for who and by who?

Last night I attended a planning meeting for #occupysandton the Johannesburg branch of the occupy movement that is spreading around the world. It began on Wall Street with a focus on the greed that has begun to characterise the economic order, and the inequality between the 99% and the 1%. They call themselves “a horizontally organised resistance movement employing the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to restore democracy in America”. The movement has been incredibly successful and long-lasting — YouTube and other forms of social media like Twitter have sustained the interest in the movement online, and the media has begun to take interest in it offline. Academics and community leaders have lent credence to the movement, and it seems to grow every day. The success of this particular movement has sparked similar protests around the US, and it has begun to spread worldwide.

When I noticed a call for #occupysouthafrica online I was immediately interested. I wanted to know who the people were that were organising it and what they represented. I wanted to know what their plans were for sustainability and what they were demanding. After all, South Africa is not the same as the US. Sure, we have a shared history of civil disobedience, and an economic condition that can at best be described as unequal and at worst as clearly exploitative. But what else? How does something like this fit into our political consciousness and who does it represent?

#Occupysouthafrica is also being termed the cringe-worthy “operation ubuntu”, which immediately marked the campaign as a white-driven initiative. This sparked immediate criticism on social media from activists and tweeters. One user noted “white people, occupying South Africa since 1652” and others sarcastically asking users to occupy their favourite expensive sushi restaurants. It’s clear that Twitter users feel distinctly uncomfortable with the privileged acknowledging that something is wrong, and that they are not the right representatives for a movement like this which demands social justice.

So with this in mind I attended the planning meeting for #occupysandton, the branch that had the initial aim of occupying the JSE property starting this Saturday. The group was mostly white, and mostly male, and I chance to say mostly a bit hippy. I tried to hold myself back and not judge and just to see what happened. The meeting was incredibly interesting and it was great to sit and actually talk through social justice, and the various positions that all of us came from. There was much disagreement, and only a little bit of shouting which was quite positive.

I think that this movement has potential in SA, and that of course we have a terrible Gini coefficient and our govt budget is misspent. I found myself asking questions to myself about why the people were here, and if perhaps a lot of middle class frustration with the economic situation is because they remain the pawns driving the economy forward without themselves becoming rich. I wondered whether the people at the meeting would have been there if they knew that arguing for an equal system would probably mean that all of us would be worse off than we were now, not better. After all, equal in a vastly unequal society means poor, not rich.

I also had concerns about the gender norms that were inherent within the group. The conversation was particularly male-dominated, and when women made statements these were ignored, only to be repeated later by male speakers and affirmed by the group. The separation and unequal power distribution between genders is also something that is inherent to the system, and I thing that in order to be successful anyone who becomes part of this movement will need to become aware of our subtle perpetuation of hierarchy and gender norms, and listen equally to all speakers. This also means that the division of labour for the longer occupation must be carefully considered — women should not become the cooks, minute-takers and secretaries but should occupy an equal status to the men in the group.

If this is to become a real representative movement, I think that Saturday is a bit soon to start. More discussion groups need to be held, and people are going to need to relinquish their desire to be in control. The questions we will have to ask ourselves in the coming days are existential — our very existence is based on a system to which we know no alternative. Reaching deep into ourselves to grapple with the ways that we support the system we are opposed to will be painful, difficult, and will take great strength.

We do need to ask ourselves what is wrong with the system, and why? We will need to ask ourselves if we are feeling the way we do because we haven’t become the super-rich, and if that is the root of our frustration. We will need to consider whether equality will mean that we end up worse off than we are now, and to grapple with the effects of that on our lives, our families and our beliefs.

I think that #occupysouthafrica will need to be driven by those who are suffering worst under the kleptocracy we are governed by, but I do think that I’d like to be there and involved to see what’s going on.


  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on


  1. Kay Kay 12 October 2011

    Thanks Jennifer. You’ve actually managed to clarify the uneasiness I was feeling myself, and just could not put my finger on. Knowing it is helpful, so I can deal with it.

  2. Vimal Vimal 12 October 2011

    Hi Jennifer,

    Yes, these are interesting times indeed. The one fact about inequality in SA is spot on: GDP per capita is about 50 – 60 kpa. So a monthly gross of R5000 per month. I’d be very surprised if folks at the meeting were thinking of that!

    On the other hand, if we held a national referendum to raise taxes REALLY high and give income transfers to everyone, that would likely be very popular, since most people aren’t getting anything near R5k per month.

    A competitive democracy will generate lots of pressure to implement such policies.
    What happens in the next 20 years will be most interesting …


  3. Jean Wright Jean Wright 12 October 2011

    @Robard. Thanks for the link… Very enlightening.

    The world is suffering a huge financial turn down as we all know, and much of it is due to bad management in governments and over spending and high expectations from populations generally. There is little point in tearing down a (reasonable though faulty) system without thorough thinking through of what will improve or replace it.

    Many big businesses are where they are owing to investments by Joe & Josephine Blogs such as myself, who rely upon their incomes through these investments. It is not greed, it is financial fact and economic survival.

    In South Africa more people hopefully will USE THEIR VOTE for change, and decent government.

  4. bewilderbeast bewilderbeast 13 October 2011

    1. Being wealthy does not necessarily mean one does not want economic justice (no-one I know is advocating a simple equal redistribution of wealth to all. They’re about EQUAL JUSTICE); 2. It’s THE STEALING that is the main focus of Occupy Wall Street – the people who write the laws allowing them to “legally” steal from “all the rest” (which includes the poor and all working folk – even those with comparative wealth); 3. Even very wealthy people like Soros and Buffet know that they have to do something to stop the theft, as it is simply unsustainable and will lead to police states; 4. I’ll stop whinging about corruption if they’d just cut me into it!! ;-)

  5. Aragorn23 Aragorn23 13 October 2011

    Thanks Jennifer. Patriarchy was also in full swing at the Cape Town meeting, although the composition of the crowd was about 80% working class and poor people of colour, which was heartening.

    @Robard: Dude, not that it’s strikingly relevant, but is that seriously the kind of website you go to for informed opinion? Speaking of strikingly relevant, I don’t think it’s at all interesting that AdBusters – who sent out a call that would have been sent out regardless by other organisers – received some indirect funding from Soros. It certainly doesn’t imply that he’s calling the shots. The only people who might be able to co-opt this movement – with its leaderless ethos and strong anarchist organising principles – are Michael Moore or Naomi Klein, and the movement is highly critical of their involvement.

  6. baz baz 13 October 2011

    @bewilderbeast You cannot have the very wealthy without the very poor.

  7. Siobhan Siobhan 13 October 2011

    This is one problem that can be solved. How? The “Robin Hood Tax”. It is the one solution that has the potential to unify all of the “occupy” groups around the world.

    The “Robin Hood Tax” has the potential to haul the entire financial world out of its present morass by the imposition (preferably by all, but realistically by most, of the world’s economies) of a $0.05 tax on all stock trades around the world. Each government would levy and audit the process to ensure that the process is not being subverted. This tax is just 5 cents on every trading transaction. The banks and stock exchanges absolutely hate the idea which, in my view, is the most persuasive reason to adopt it.
    If those who manipulate the system fear “Robin Hood”, you have them by the short and curlies! Go, Robin!

  8. Mark Mark 13 October 2011

    COSATU and the ANCYL are planning a series of protests and marches for the end of October. Surely their agenda and the ‘occupy Sandton’ agenda are quite similar? The occupation movement simply identifies corporate power as the problem, where the ANCYL and COSATU are demanding the government to implement change.

    If this bunch of white guys had real guts, they’d be marching with Malema – demanding equal land distribution, mine nationalisation, an end to poverty and free education for all. Or they should invite the ANCYL and COSATU to make a stop at the JSE.

    But I doubt that those who spend their time surfing the internet all day have a concrete vision of South Africa’s problems. It seems to me that they’ve latched on to a fad, adopting a cultural stance originating in the western world and imposing it on our situation here. It would be interesting to see how things play out, especially if some reconciliation between what appears to be a bourgoise white agenda finds itself aligned with very movements that make us white boys quake and shiver when we read the RSS feeds from News24 on our iPhones.

  9. Billionmouths Billionmouths 13 October 2011

    Klepto Crazy is the correct word or statement I would agree with,then the word Liear would follow very short on the heels.Now this is not politics anymore The current goverment as we know it Thinks that the majority of South Africans are uneducated and du to this they are stupid,well surprise They are opening there Eyes and ears and thanks to There (ANC) continues self help corruption non delevery Klepto Crazy ways they are shoeting them self in Not just the foet but other area’s as well.The time has come that the Millions voices will drone together and Kick them out for bringing South Africa into Disripute.
    One Man has done this to the ANC but collectively the current Goverment is doing this.

  10. Jess Jess 13 October 2011

    If we all look at different sustainable measures with which to survive – such as planting and producing our own food – R5,000.00 per month will be more than enough for me, at least. Adapt your lives within your means, live simply and happily. Thanks for the insight Jennifer, very valuable.

  11. Enough Said Enough Said 13 October 2011


    Well said.

  12. Enough Said Enough Said 13 October 2011


    There are many social democracies with a far more equal income/wealth distribution than the USA or South Africa. They function very efficiently and offer a good quality of life.

  13. Iqshan Iqshan 13 October 2011

    Aragorn: weren’t the London riots the start of something really meaningful in terms of your position? How’s that working out for you?

    Seriously though. If the OWS guys come-up with stuff like ‘reinstate Glass-Steagall’; ‘reform laws around corporate personae’ and so on – not ‘smash the state’, ‘wipe out banks and the financial system’, ‘destroy capitalism’, ‘grow a beard and drop out’, etc – they’re not really the sort of person an an anarcho-commie would usually associate with except if you were jumping on the bandwagon and out of ideas yourself… would you now? I love the reports on the Village Voice of how they’re guzzling smoked salmon and crepes donated by wealthy Democrats. Before I turned 25, I might have joined them

  14. Robard Robard 13 October 2011

    @Aragorn – Admit, the guy has a point: the banks can’t put a gun to your head to force you to take out a loan, whereas the banks didn’t have a choice when the government required it to issue risky loans to minorities. And no taxpayer had a choice in the matter when Obama decided to bail out the banks who got burned on these loans. The higher education bubble, of which these guys are the victims, have also been engineered by government, not least by changing the law so that a person remains liable for student debt even if he goes bankrupt. The predictable result has been that banks fell over their feet to extend very generous loans to students, many of whom were too happy to be able to stay up to date with the latest iphone and iwhatever.

  15. MLH MLH 13 October 2011

    Mark, you put it in a nutshell…how do those who are not poverty-sticken show solidarity for those who are? Because, from Jennifer’s description of occupy SA and what I know of Malema’s agenda, neither are where I would want to be.
    Although not entirely comfortable with my lot, I don’t want any handouts; I don’t want to be super-rich. But I certainly don’t want to see SA’s economy fail either.
    That there are a number of fads out there is surely important? The more there are, the more we dilute our support for important issues. Taking Occupy NY into ANCYL territory makes it vastly disparate on either side of the marsh, and the Pta-Jhb railway line.
    To explain: social networking poses a similar problem. There are now so many networking vehicles that one such as Linked In is being used as a social site. And how social is ‘social’? Do we need rough types who are borderline friends of friends of friends entering our personal territory and claiming friendship just because they like the look of our face? How do we assess ‘like-minded’?
    I think I’ll stick to Azaaz; it’s international, allows me to pick my battles and I can depend on it to be non-violent (so far). I’m passionate about the objectives of R2K, but it also seems to preach essentially to the converted. So what are we really doing with all these flash events? Looking for attention? Or doing our better to get a life? Are we really changing anything?

  16. Iqshan Iqshan 13 October 2011

    Walter: I count three. That’s governments in North Africa that changed (as opposed to the two you’re seemingly aware of) and basic grammar or spelling mistakes in your post here. If you’re going to shamelessly promote yourself, at least turn on the spell check

  17. Judith Judith 13 October 2011

    Very interesting article in the Citizen today by Mike Schussler revealing that most SME owners earn around R2400 a month often less than they pay their employees. In fact government and big corporation employees are the wealthy people in SA. Put a new slant on occupysandton and other movements!

    Good thought provoking posting Jen!

  18. Enough Said Enough Said 14 October 2011

    In my opinion to liken the ANCYL, COSATU and Malema to these global “Occupy” protests is like chalk and cheese.

    The ANCYL are organised structured interest groups with well known agenda’s. The “Occupy” protests are spontanious, we will have to see what comes out of it, but the 99% across the world, from America to Sandton are now ‘gatvol’ with the 1%.

    At the end of the day, Zuma and Malema are members of the 1%, like GW Bush, Obama etc.

  19. Ash Ash 14 October 2011

    Interesting, a very similar complaint was made regarding occupy Wall street :

    Cosatu marched on the JSE for a couple of days running last year. This is hardly a new idea in South Africa. Whereas the conversation in America has been completely distorted and a movement representing an extreme left view at least brings some balance to the conversation, I can’t see that a similar movement here is capable of saying anything that hasn’t already been said. Or that it would be capable of garnering any more press than Malema, Cosatu, the ANCYL and SACP et. al. Is transplanting yet another American solution to solve a South African problem necessary or just plain insulting?

  20. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 14 October 2011

    This occupy x street movement seems a bit aimless. I’ve managed to piece together a few basic assumptions:
    1. Government and big corporations are tied at the hip.
    2. This relationship is corrupt and has led to the economic crisis, with the middle class bankrolling bailouts for the corrupt big corporations.
    3. We need government to do something about it.

    I agree with 1 and 2, but I disagree with 3. It follows from 1 that government is already in the pockets of big corporations. It follows from 2 that we need to stop supporting government involvement in businesses.

    A decentralisation of power should be the focus if these protests are concerned with doing away with the corrupt relationship between governments and big corporations. A bigger, more powerful government will only increase the entry level cost of corruption, which in turn means only the biggest corporations can afford to bribe government.

  21. Havelock Vetinari Havelock Vetinari 14 October 2011

    In order to be truly effective, such action has to have a specific, concrete goal. That is what gets things done. This “occupy xxx” stuff is vague and wishy-washy… great for telling the world you’re not happy, but achieving nothing if there is no specific goal: “we will keep ocupying [insert venue here] until [insert demand here] happens”.

  22. Rory Short Rory Short 14 October 2011

    @Jennifer, great that you took yourself to this meeting and are reporting your thoughts about it here. The social conditioning that shapes our attitudes and behaviours and conditions us to fit in with hierarchical and also gender slanted social power allocations mostly happens unconsciously and thus needs serious introspection by each one of us in order to bring it into the light of consciousness so that it can be healed.

    I have been a practising Quaker since 1963. Quaker organisation is, and for the 350 years of our existence, always has been completely horizontalist. The social power within a Quaker organisations is never ever passed up any organisational hierarchy, it always remains firmly rooted at the bottom most level of the hierarchy. Quakers value the individual’s contribution above everything, whether the individual is male, female, old, young, atheist, non-theist, theist, black, white, pink or yellow is for information only, it has absolutely no bearing on the value accorded the contribution. We are always completely open to sharing our ways with any person who wants to experience them at first hand.

  23. GC GC 15 October 2011

    Sedition -Conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of a state. Is all of this occupy x street stuff legal. Is sedition null.

  24. Jean Wright Jean Wright 15 October 2011

    @ GC I think we all (except in places like China, etc.) have a right to protest peaceably. This is not sedition …. although I suppose it could lead to it under certain circumstances such as heavy handed behaviour from Law Enforces. But protesters also have an onus to behave decently and not riot.

    The thing about these protests, which in many cases address a valid fundamental problem caused by the current financial downturn, is that it addresses dissatisfaction much too generally. A list of priorities and how to achieve them rather than a blanket ‘don’t like’ would be more constructive. This takes time and a certain amount of real thought – all of which takes time and effort.

  25. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 17 October 2011

    “…a focus on the greed that has BEGUN to characterise the economic order…” – seriously? That’s exactly what documents like the freedom charter and groups like the SACP, PAGAD and COSATU have been confronting! Its symptomatic of an imposed global order, that most of the non-European world calls imperialism.

  26. Denise Denise 24 October 2011

    “For whom and by whom?”
    Speak English, darling.

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