After the Bell: I have a dream – about a national go-away
Do protests make a difference? Obviously, in some cases, they do. Perhaps the most memorable protest of all time was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on the Mall in Washington in 1963.
The march was supported by about 200,000 people, and they came from all over the country to promote racial equality and justice. It was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and concluded with his famous and resounding, “I have a dream” speech.
The day was peaceful; the mood was joyful, peppered with songs and prayers; it was supported by a whole range of civil rights leaders, and King’s call, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, must go down as one of the most penetrating and moving in history.
The march was followed by a real change in direction of society as a whole in the US. The next year, the Civil Rights Act was passed, explicitly banning all discrimination based on race. The year after that, the Voting Rights Act restored and protected voting rights, and in 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
Compare and contrast the Economic Freedom Fighters’ “national stayaway” today, which was marked by equal measures of boredom and violence. It wasn’t supported by any nationally respected organisation outside of the EFF, with the possible exception of the South African Federation of Trade Unions. On the contrary, apart from the EFF, only some nationally reviled and discredited figures seemed to be the prominent individuals supporting the stayaway. You know who I am talking about.
EFF leader Julius Malema did his thing, speaking alternately with notional concern about load shedding, corruption and potholes, and then sliding into threats of violence. The EFF wasn’t necessarily calling for shops to be closed, but they just wanted people to know that there was a possibility of looting. Yeah, right. We’ve seen this movie.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
In a sense, the stayaway was a success; there were sporadic incidents of violence, but generally, things were pretty calm. It’s a measure of SA’s benighted state that a protest that does not end in rampant violence and destruction should be considered a happy outcome.
But an aura of high moral justice, there was not. And neither did you get a sense that there was some kind of supra-political movement being born. It was just another day in South Africa where political disputes were taken to the streets, causing businesses to lose income and small, retail businesses in particular to suffer even more than they already do.
It all slightly reminds me of what was once a joke about a protester confronting an authoritarian state, who was bundled into a police van. When they get to the police station, they realise the placard the protester was holding was blank. “Why is this blank,” the police demanded of the protester. “Well,” he replied, “we all know what the problems are.”
As it happens, the sight of protesters with blank placards has become a reality. First in Hong Kong and now in Beijing, residents protesting about the stringent Covid lockdown held up blank pieces of paper. One told the Reuters news agency that the blank pieces of paper “represent everything we want to say but cannot say”.
The difference between a successful protest and an unsuccessful protest lies, fairly obviously, in whether it galvanises the public imagination, resets the political agenda, and forces political action. Trust me, today’s stayaway – wedged between a weekend and a public holiday – did none of that.
I have a different alternative. If the EFF really wants economic prosperity and jobs for all, what it should do is not encourage people to stay away from work; they should encourage people to go to work. What a concept! It’s through working, and particularly working together, that SA’s depressingly declining state can be reversed. The alternative, not working, is a recipe for making it worse.
Why is that not obvious? BM/DM