Thursday, 3 March 2016

“Together, Hand-in-Hand”: Disruption, Violence and Protest Myths in South Africa

“Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we will liberate this country.” Winnie Mandela, Munsieville, 1986

When a defiant Winnie Mandela uttered the words, “together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we will liberate this country”, in Munsieville in 1986, it sent ripples throughout the South African public realm. The displays of violence committed in protest were already at an all-time high, and necklacing – the practise of securing a used tyre around the neck of an accused traitor, dousing it in petrol, and setting it alight – represented the ritualised use of fire in its most grotesque and ultimate manifestation. It was a clear message that there would be no middle ground; everyone had to choose a side, and if you chose the wrong one, you may pay for it with your life.

She might as well have set a match to a river of gasoline running through the very arteries of the fabric of South African society itself. In the mid-1980s there was a clear and palpable sense, in ordinary urban South African life, that the spiral into violent conflict had become inevitable. Many people believed that South Africa would ultimately end up in a civil war. Some reasoned it was the only way to bring an end to Apartheid. Others reasoned that it was inevitable because dissent had grown and exploded in too many places to quell. A large number of people armed themselves in preparation for the coming revolution, which to white South Africans in particular, heralded a descent into the “heart of darkness”.

As a teenager at the time, I was of the opinion that the former was the reason why the country would go down the path of increasing violence. It seemed obvious that the struggle against Apartheid would culminate in a full insurrection, that it would require extraordinary measures to overcome the seemingly insurmountable Apartheid project. I felt that South Africa was effectively a pressure cooker, and its various distributed eruptions were a strong indication that the potential for it to spread like wildfire was there. It could ignite, and “go viral”, in today’s parlance, and become a sweeping force for change that could destabilise the entire country and hold the state and government ransom to its demands. That is how I experienced it as a young person in Apartheid South Africa. I was much younger then, than the students who are currently making waves in the political arena in South Africa.

Thirty years later, the #RhodesMustFall movement, which initially advocated for the removal of  a statue of the colonial, industrial era mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, set in motion a series of protest actions, which culminated in the #FeesMustFall movement. This catalysed student protests across the country and forced the government to freeze fee increases for 2016. The collective tertiary student body in South Africa had come to realise their political power in the South African socio-political spectrum, and had won the respect of the South African public for their tenacity and determination.

As of today, however, there have been a series of events, involving the attempted burning down of buildings, vehicles, paintings, libraries and paintings, amongst other symbols and items. Fire, seems yet again to have emerged as an instrument of protest. This has brought questions of whether violence, as a form of protest – especially against a democratic system – is justifiable, and can be legitimately invoked in the interests of advancing political struggles in South Africa. Supporters of the protesters have argued that state and bureaucratic violence, which is more or less guaranteed, is the real source of all political violence in South Africa, and it is in response to them that these violent responses have emerged.

Currently, the fascination with fire appears to have become of particular anthropological interest to those who have been observing the student movement, and its momentary lapses into ritualised violence – involving the use of fire – as a means of political expression. In the emerging public and academic discourse, I have seen a number of references to the use of fire as a medium of purification, marking the symbolic destruction of an ever-present past in rituals that attempt to exorcise the shadows of the past that continue to haunt us as a nation.  

The fear, for those who have lived through the uncertainties of the 1980s, is that these rituals are rehearsals of a kind; that they are progenitors of a greater destructive force than they symbolise in isolated protests. Rather than a purifying force for change, many South Africans are likely to view these rituals as hosting the potential for sparking widespread public disorder and dissent at best, and as a practise run for greater public violence at worst.

For the South African public, the use of fire symbolises something other than purification; it symbolises the rapid spread and uncontrollable momentum of the masses in action against the state. It symbolises the breakdown of ‘order’ and stability in the public realm. It symbolises a retreat into the dark past that we have tried so desperately to outrun and leave behind, embracing our narrative of forgiveness, reconciliation and multiculturalism instead as the preferred principles upon which to build a new future. Public violence tweaks the ever-resident fears of the South African populace; our fear of lapsing into dystopia and falling into the dark void of cautionary tales that characterise post liberation statehood in Africa.

Consequently, we have seen an outpouring of laments and pleas imploring the student and worker’ protest movements to adopt peaceful means of protest. Examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have been touted as examples of times when protesters were worthier of admiration and public empathy. Amidst all this hand-wringing and appeals for sensibility, the bureaucracies and leaderships of universities and institutions of higher learning have conflated the emphasis that the protesters have placed on disruption, with that of violent protest. And it has largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed.

This is either deliberate, or the product of profound ignorance, for it is difficult for any learned person or persons to confuse the activities of disruption with that of violent protest. Violence, to be sure, is disruptive, but the converse is not true. Not all disruption is violent, nor does it have to be. Indeed, the very means of protest that they refer to, when invoking the names of leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was disruptive in nature.

Even though these protests of yesteryear were peaceful, they were always intended to disrupt, not just perceptions, but also the physical public realm in which the protesters lived out their lives. Marches, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and other acts of civil disobedience, while peaceful, were order of the day for the protesters that rose up to challenge injustice and oppression. Protest, after all, is geared towards disrupting the status quo and forcing it to change. For that, it has to demonstrate its power through action, and not just demonstration or ideation.

As Gandhi himself put it, “there is nothing passive about my resistance”. The whole point of protest, it can reasonably be argued, is to disrupt both perceptions as well as the ordinary day-to-day functions and processes that are responsible for oppression and/or which are the target of protest. The two are intimately linked. Did not Rosa Parks defy the actual law of the time by refusing to move to the back of the bus? Weren’t Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many other civil rights leaders imprisoned for breaking the unjust laws that they protested against?

The notion that protesters should only adopt means of protest that do not disrupt the very functions and processes that they are targeting, in effect seeks to reduce these protests to mere performances that are played out merely for the sake of enactment, showing no real intent to bring about change in real terms. The attempts to deride disruptive protest are nonsensical and ridiculous, but they have a motive; the motive is to neutralise the protests and the protesters and relegate them to the margins of the public eye, ultimately rendering them peripheral priorities in the eyes of the bureaucracies as well.

As long as the protesters go about their business in an essentially compliant and impotent manner, they will be tolerated, perhaps even lauded, by the very institutions that are resisting the clear and direct impetus to transform to meet the needs of 21st Century South African students. This sleight of hand needs to be challenged, and defied. It is only through disrupting bureaucracies, spaces, events and formalities that protest is taken seriously, and becomes effective. There is enough history to support this view. It is self-evident.

While fears of violence and destruction of property are legitimate, and requires attention, it is complete falsehood to conflate violence with disruption, and to argue against both as though they were the same thing. For example, Shackville (click here for an article on Shackville), and the occupation of administrative buildings, for example, are disruptive but not violent. Neither is it necessary to deploy paramilitary styled security and armed forces against disruptive protests. It is not necessary to fire stun grenades into a group of protesters who are seated on the ground, attempting a sit-in. These forms of protest, as much as they may inconvenience and disrupt the affairs of institutions and/or the public, deserve tolerance and respect.

Even if key public infrastructures become the targets of disruptive protest (e.g. Tahrir Square in Cairo), it is the mark of a civilised and sensitive leadership to respect this form of protest. Meeting disruption with force, is itself an unnecessary violence, and runs the danger of escalating an otherwise peaceful disruption into open confrontation and perpetuate unending cycles of violence.

While the public debates have focussed largely on the means that the protesters have employed, little criticism has been directed at the institutions for how they have gone about managing the situation, and providing leadership through the crisis. Yet they set the most profound example, and hold the majority of power in their hands, and it is hence their capacity for violence that should be under the spotlight. What actions they take matter, and any spiralling violence should be understood and acknowledged in this context.

As yet, they have not been able to shift the crisis onto a constructive trajectory. When the establishment makes a show of parading security forces that are disproportionately armed and militarised, and who then act with violence and impunity when encountering peaceful disruptions, they are sure to provoke a response in kind. Violence is never a one-sided affair; it is a conflict, requiring two or more parties to instigate.

What is often not well acknowledged, is that the overwhelming presence of security forces on campuses is itself a disruption to the spirit of free enquiry, as well as the everyday freedoms that are the hallmarks of institutions of higher learning. The presence of armed, paramilitary styled security forces is itself a more direct act of violent disruption upon a campus. It invokes the threat of violence to create an atmosphere of intimidation; this does not ensure safety, and neither does it provide any kind of stability. It uses violence and the threat of it to tightly regulate a system that is already unstable, achieving little more than a tenuous meta-stability, and not the normalisation of campus life.

These forces ensure that university life does not normalise, and works against efforts to ensure that the freedoms associated with institutions of higher learning are upheld. It should be remembered that these institutions play a critical role in shaping the public discourse on important socio-political and economic issues. They are sites of disruption themselves, primarily through the exchange and debate of ideas, as well as through innovating new ideas and visions for society and acting on them.

A display of militarised force – in such a space – is a means of intimidating protesters, as well as potential protesters, into servility. It should not be a first, or even a second option for dealing with student protests. Rather, full and complete engagement, as tiring as it may be, and as fruitless as it may seem at times, should be the primary means through which conflicts are resolved at institutions of higher learning.

Indeed, the reason why parliaments, as well as universities, have their own security systems and personnel, is to ensure that there isn’t a threat of abuse of state security (or private security) to quell dissent and restrict freedom of thought and expression. When campus security is unable to deal with a crisis the first response should be leadership, and not the deployment of police or private security firms. Perhaps it is the overarching propensity for securitisation of spaces and bodies in post-Apartheid South Africa that has infected the judgement of the authorities; where the fear of crime has become cause for all manners of securitisations that work against real security.

It is indeed ironic that any manner of disruptions that student and worker protests have undertaken have been conflated with violence. For it is the disruption that security forces introduce into campus life that is unquestionably, and most directly underpinned by the threat of violence. Student protests, in contrast, have largely undertaken disruptions that are non-violent in character. Nonetheless, student disruptions have been met with force, and not a meaningful two-way dialogue; this may yet auger the worst outcomes for both the students as well as the institutions of higher learning in South Africa.

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