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March like an Egyptian: Let’s create a culture of protest

By Mia Swart

By appealing his suspension from the ANC, Julius Malema showed that he will not lie down. Like a phoenix he is bound to rise again. Malema’s reckless public statements have often done nothing but infuriate. But he has occasionally made constructive statements. A few years ago, he said that white South Africans do not march. He was referring specifically to the fact that white South Africans do not join in large numbers when significant historical events are commemorated. During Human Rights Day or Youth Day celebrations one typically sees very few white faces. The same is true during political and social protests.

There is clearly no culture of protest among white South Africans. With very few exceptions white South Africans don’t protest. The Black Sash formed one notable exception. In the mid-1950s white middle-class women who were members of the movement demonstrated (often on a daily basis) against discriminatory legislation such as the pass laws by taking part in marches, demonstrations and vigils. To show their disapproval they stood on pavements outside public buildings in cities, defiantly wearing their black sashes.

White South Africans generally watch and criticise black South Africans who protest for political and economic rights from the safety of their living rooms (often remarking that “black people prefer to protest than to work”). Whites may sign internet petitions from the safe isolation of their homes and offices but are reluctant to march. White South Africans are more likely to leave the safety of their suburban homes and show up en masse for rugby matches or U2 concerts than to defend their civil rights or the civil rights of their compatriots.

It is difficult to argue that there is anything good about the passing of the Secrecy Bill last week. But this terrible act did have a few illuminating side-effects: it starkly showed alliances and allegiances (also within the ANC); it demonstrated the power of politics (stronger than the power of business or the courts), it finally shook many out of their self-satisfied states of complacency (including academics and those who placed too much faith in the Constitution and underestimated the importance of political processes) and it finally inspired black and white to protest side-by-side.

The protests outside Parliament and Luthuli House this week were significant acts of social engagement and protest. But in light of the disturbing and potentially democracy-destroying nature of the Act, one would have expected many more to join in protest. From what I could gather, the protests seemed a bit too orderly, a tad too tame. In October this year I attended a social justice protest on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Thirty thousand people gathered to object to economic policies that ordinary Israelis find oppressive. Protesters chanted slogans with a revolutionary rhythm until late in the night. The atmosphere was electric. Just months before 350 000 thousand protesters gathered in Tel Aviv during the Occupy Tel Aviv protest (no irony intended).

This has of course been the year of protests. Even more dramatic than the protests organised by the Occupy Wall Street movement across the globe, the protest on Tahrir Square will be remembered as symbolic of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution. The intensity and scale of the protests remind one of the words of Victor Hugo that there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time had come.

More than 50 000 protesters occupied Tahrir Square when the protests started on January 25 this year. Al Jazeera reported that by February 1 more than 1 million protesters peacefully gathered in and around the square. In recent days this protest was revived by Egyptians protesting against the interim military rulers. These protesters are persevering in spite of efforts by the security forces and police to dismantle them. Referring to the crackdown on protesters protesting as part of the Occupy movement in the US this week, Naomi Klein writes that the Occupy protesters are coming closer to their brothers and sisters in Tahrir Square.

Protesting can have a certain pretentious see-and-be-seen quality. But protesting Egyptian style is far from glamorous. It means staying and persevering in spite of bad weather and in spite of tear gas. It means camping outside for weeks. White South Africans should be inspired by the global protests and march in their masses. Ironically it is this kind of mass mobilisation that will help break down barriers between black and white, create a sense of identification and perhaps reduce paranoia in our government.

White South Africans often seem too timid, inhibited or complacent to raise their voice or to stamp their feet. Passionately joining in protests is the most appropriate response to the passing of the Secrecy Bill. And in the spirit of Tahrir Square, one would hope that South Africans will soon march not just for themselves but for their neighbours in Zimbabwe.

Dr Mia Swart is an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.