It’s always felt vital for me to be an active citizen. It’s terribly easy to whinge and complain and do nothing, and I’m much more of a “what-can-we-do-to-fix-it” kind of person. My best friend reminded me recently how in high school, a (very) small group of us stood on a main road in our area to protest the clubbing of baby seals. I don’t think it changed the lives of any baby seals, but at least we felt we had done our little bit. (In retrospect, there is probably a whole lot more we could have done, but these were the days before social media, and we didn’t know much better).
This year, Johannesburg (and indeed, South Africa) has seen a lot of protest action. A few months ago, the students of the local universities staged #FeesMustFall protests. I followed with great interest, because I have an interest in matters that affect students (and all South Africans). At the time, I was very quick to point out to anyone who would listen that the students were amazingly peaceful on the whole, even if the media chose to ignore that nature of their protests. I was delighted at the mobilisation of students – particularly by the manner in which the young student leaders organised masses of students. I also tried to teach my students about how the media works – what information is shared, what is left out, how sensationalism sell newspapers…
In some ways, like in 1976, the youth have reminded us older folk that it is vital to stand up for what we believe in – to fight for a cause. It’s easy to sit comfortably in our privileged middle class existence and point out what’s wrong with the world, or indeed, our country, but it’s quite another to do something. I feel like I do most of my “doing” as an armchair activist – spreading information, signing petitions, oh, and educating the youth.
I know there has been much criticism of the bourgeois nature of the #ZumaMustFall campaign – middle class citizens who only rose to action when Jacob Zuma “redeployed” Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, despite the numerous other occasions The Shower Head has given us cause for outrage (off the top of my head: Marikana, Nkaaaaaandla, The Hawks, The Guptas, the appalling appointments of Police Ministers, signal scrambling and police presence in Parliament, and further back: the rape trial, the generally corrupt relationship with Shabir Shaik (and his release from prison), and of course, the systematic removal of any opposition within the ANC. Perhaps Nene’s axing, and the humungous and instant blow that had on our poor battered Rand, was just the final straw for us. But I don’t think it matters what has driven middle class people to the streets to call for the removal of the president – I think it’s important that middle class people are acting. Yes, the activism is most comfortable and safe (protesting on a public holiday so as not to interfere with our daily lives is so convenient!) but the fact that the call to action is being received is important in my opinion.
I joined the march in Johannesburg on Wednesday 16th December – our Day of Reconciliation. I had had my doubts about going – not because I was worried about violence or die swart gevaar, but because I had seen some revolting racism rearing its ugly head on social media, and I didn’t want to have any part of that. It’s amazing how criticism for a person doing their job very badly can so easily become a prod for some people’s thin veneer of new-South African to vanish and a real beast of an old-South African to be revealed. I am also loath to blame just one person for all the ills of our society – corruption, by its very nature, has to have at least two parties to be successful. To personify all the evils in just one person is a little extreme. I didn’t want to be part of some sort of protection of privilege either. But when I saw that a lot of good people I know were also going to attend, I felt comforted and decided that it was time for my daughters to learn about active citizenship too. I did comment to friends on the way there that it felt terribly bourgeois (and perhaps we should do coffee or a quick bite in one of gentrified Braamfontein’s trendy spots afterwards 😉 )
I was so relieved at the march, that it wasn’t an all-white affair. I didn’t spot any signs of old-South African white mentality at all, thankfully. What it did feel like was a bunch of like-minded Joburgers of all races, ages and creeds getting together in a calm and dignified manner to express how gatvol we are of the president’s corrupt actions (thanks, Mister Vavi!). Speaker after speaker reiterated that it was time for change. We cheered, we ululated, we marched slowly across the Nelson Mandela Bridge. We sang songs. We chanted “Panzi Corruption, Panzi!” and “Zuma Must Go! The People Say So!” One of my friends said as much as she loves a good protest, she just can’t do the chanting – feels too must like being a sheep for her. I know what she means, but there was something so satisfying shouting in a large group: “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”
I understand the criticism that some are making about the #ZumaMustFall movement (except that of the ANC members who have huddled embarrassingly around Number One and branded the marches as racist and unpatriotic – I’ll never come to grips with that). But I would like to suggest that instead of sewing further division amongst the citizens of this fricking awesome country, which there is far too much of anyway, let’s do what has to be done to root out the rot. Let’s engage in debates without resorting to name-calling and ugliness. There is common ground to be found, and solutions to our problems. I, certainly, have no intentions of going anywhere (except on holidays!) and I’d love to see more pro-active citizenship which improves the lives of all South Africans.