Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

#WeSeeYou: A visionary occupation of Camps Bay, or activism that reeks of performance, publicity and influencer syndrome?

Four of the seven #WeSeeYou activists. (Photo supplied)

To an extent, activism is easy. You can do it alone or as a group. All it means is that you push in the opposite direction of society's 'norms'. Or what you perceive those norms to be.

For example, there are activists fighting for the sustainability of the Afrikaans language because they feel it is under threat; others are fighting for the safety of white farmers because they feel they’re being targeted.

In one way or another, we’re all activists because we have all fought against something, supported reforming something, organised something or supported something – even if it is a backseat, put your feet up and don’t get your hands too messy kind of support. 

But here’s the kicker: true activism means that whatever you’re challenging as a collective – whether it’s promoting safer spaces for LGBTQIA+ communities, protesting against impeding capitalism or cultural appropriation, or fighting for political, social or economic reform – that activism has to change society in a way that actively serves people and changes things for the better.

On 22 September, seven people booked a two-night stay at an Airbnb in Camps Bay. The cost? R15,000 per night. When checkout time arrived, the “collective” – as they refer to themselves – decided to stay. To… occupy the premises. 

Their statement read: “We are an art collective of queer black and coloured activists from the working middle class occupying a mansion in Camps Bay. We are in solidarity with all occupations around the country, while centring the lives and wellbeing of queer people and women.” 

The movement comes with its own hashtag #WeSeeYou – an ode, I assume, to the silenced societies. But the movement’s message is unclear and raises a lot of questions. 

Their Instagram and Facebook pages are littered with posts about global economies, corrupt governments, selfies and short profiles of the activists who are occupying the space. There are also images of posters they’ve put up around the area that read “occupy”, “reclaim” and “Who decided that some get more while others just get less?”.

The messaging is broad and unclear at best. Are they fighting for spatial justice and arguing that everyone should do as they do, and move into an empty lavish mansion on the beach with six bedrooms, a Jacuzzi and a swimming pool? Is the end game of their activism that these properties be used as safe spaces for the vulnerable in the queer community of Cape Town? 

And to piggyback on that, is their message that not enough of these safe spaces exist? Or is the point of the occupation to fix and reverse the spatial planning of apartheid? That one I have an answer to – a selfie on the beach won’t reverse harmful political geography.

I can’t ask the collective any of these questions because they refused to speak to me – a decision I found ironic since I literally AM everything they’re claiming to represent. I am a black woman who is queer and part of the working middle class; and in many instances have been vulnerable because of my sexuality and identity. Like them, I have faced cultural castigation. Not only do I mirror their image, but I also believe in every point they make in their “manifesto”. 

I, too, want more safe spaces. 

What the hell does Airbnb have to do with safe spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community? Reckless behaviour like this will only hurt the economy; an economy by the way, which is already gasping for air.

I believe in protecting our women and decreasing or completely eradicating gender-based violence; I support the queer movement; I am vehemently against apartheid spatial planning and strongly believe that we deserve to live wherever we like – but I do not believe or support the execution of their activism. That is, essentially, why they won’t speak to me. 

And I was called a bully for having an opinion – an opinion that the #WeSeeYou movement is not a revolutionary act, but rather middle class performance art. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. Art reflects society and society reflects art, and somewhere between those two things a lot of conversations happen and, eventually, change happens… even if that change is microscopic to begin with.

But no activism can exist without interrogation, discussion; an allowance for a difference in opinion and an opportunity to ask questions and have them answered. 

If the collective is not willing to engage with a single person who ultimately stands for the same sociopolitical beliefs they do, then how on earth do they hope to change the destructive norms of a society whose thinking ultimately has to change, and with whom these discussions must be had?

You cannot operate in a vacuum, even if you are doing it with other projects that do a lot of good for the queer community. You have to be able to talk about your vision and, to an extent, justify it because without that discourse, all we’re left with are a bunch of loose ends from which we are forced to draw our own conclusions. 

For instance: Why didn’t you use that Airbnb money to pay a vulnerable person’s rent for a couple of months? Or feed the hungry? You can feed a lot of people with R30,000. Or why not use that money for resources so that you could open up your own middle-class homes as safe spaces for queers, if having safe spaces for the queer community is, in fact, what this is all about. Again, the messaging is unclear. (Side note: A source close to the activists has confirmed that some of them live in middle-class or even affluent areas near the beach.)

But they didn’t do any of those things; they had a bit of a holiday and then decided to take a stand – and the problem with standing is that you can only do it for so long before your legs give in and you have to start using your mouth to share what’s on your mind. 

If we’re not allowed to ask questions – if the status quo is “support without question the fact that we now live and work in this Airbnb or fuck off” – nothing changes. 

What happens when Airbnb pulls out of South Africa because seven young artists wanted to prove something? Well, it’s simple. The economic impact is estimated at a loss of R8.7-billion for a year, and a corresponding loss of over 22,000 jobs from the broader South African economy. Most of those jobs are held by locals who use their additional income to pay off debts, pay their rent or bond, or simply put food on the table.

I want the same things as #WeSeeYou – I just don’t support the way they’re trying to get them, and if the activists are not willing to debate that with me, then good luck trying to influence any kind of real systemic change. Without a willingness to engage, the activism reeks only of performance, publicity and influencer syndrome, which only ends up hurting societies – the very ones the movement is trying to fight for.

What the hell does Airbnb have to do with safe spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community? Reckless behaviour like this will only hurt the economy; an economy by the way which is already gasping for air.

If you kill the economy, you kill jobs, you displace more people – ultimately, nothing good can come from it and from a racial identity perspective – as a Twitter user so eloquently put it – “you make it harder for people with surnames like ours to make these bookings”. 

And she’s right – black people have enough boundaries to cross; we don’t need more. We deserve to live in Camps Bay as well, even if it is just for a short holiday, and we don’t need to be fighting that system because we do that every day. We see it in the way we get followed in stores or how estate agents won’t respond to our emails when we ask about rentals in areas they think we don’t belong in – actions like this “occupation” perpetuate these injustices. How are the movement’s actions adding to the greater good of our societies? The “we belong” messaging becomes moot.

What happens when Airbnb pulls out of South Africa because seven young artists wanted to prove something? Well, it’s simple. The economic impact is estimated at a loss of R8.7-billion for a year, and a corresponding loss of over 22,000 jobs from the broader South African economy. Most of those jobs are held by locals who use their additional income to pay off debts, pay their rent or bond, or simply put food on the table.

A recent Airbnb report states that more than 65% of hosts in South Africa are women who use the online platform simply to make ends meet. Airbnb has also expanded the influence it can have on entrepreneurship in the country by introducing its Experiences option – where locals are able to monetise their passions and create economic opportunities for their own benefit as well as for the benefit of the communities they live in. 

Sure, I guess the wokest of wokes would argue that this is nothing but capitalising on culture and the poor, but the truth is, it is ultimately the poor who benefit from the entrepreneurial opportunities afforded to them, and who do so willingly because they need to survive. Because they don’t know there are seven young artists living in a mansion in Camps Bay who are trying to make a point through Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. Because none of that puts food on their tables and because they don’t understand what any of this has to do with their ultimate survival.

The Occupy movement is not new – it is decades old and it does encourage change through engagement, but it takes a little more than refusing to leave a space. It needs intelligent people who possess both the energy and the courage to entertain discourse with integrity. It takes real vision to influence the public, politicians and the government as a whole, some of whom may have opposing views or who might share the same ideologies but not the execution of the idea. 

And, it takes bravery for activists to push politicians to the brink and stimulate the public to see what the activists see when elected parties are unable to offer support and provide for necessary and much-needed change.

Unfortunately, radical vision requires radical and critical conversation, and change doesn’t happen in a silo with a Jacuzzi and a sea view and a threat to the economy and many women’s jobs. DM/MC


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All Comments 4

  • Well put, and thank you.
    This group of self-indulgent, self-pitying and narcissistic individuals will achieve nothing, aside from placing Cape Town’s Air B&B industry under strain, and thereby denying thousands of people much-needed income as the country emerges from lockdown.

  • Thank you for the well thought article. I listened carefully to a Cape Talk interview of the #WeSeeYou media liaison, and, although she was raising fair points about spatial inequalities and the need for women and queers to be safe, I felt the messages were delivered in a vacuum. I didn’t hear any realistic practical suggestions on what’s next, and when looking for more answers in their social media platform I too found a bit of a random selection of posts – some art, some selfies, some slogans. One of her crazy suggestions was that people should make their private property available for others to live in. She fails to understand that it is not capitalism, or private property rights, that make people poor. Someone getting rich does not result in others getting poor. Everyone can become richer – and it has been widely demonstrated that capitalism, mixed with good welfare / wealth redistribution, no corruption and personal freedom is the perfect mix for poverty alleviation. They are barking at the wrong tree, and should also question masculinity and misogyny in many South African cultures, which is the biggest threat to the safety of women and queer people in this country.