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Some questions for Occupy South Africa

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

On Saturday, I went to see the Occupy JSE protest and left with a distinct sense of confusion. Reading up on the people who started the local incarnation of the Occupy Wall Street protests didn’t help either. I’ve got a few things that I’d like cleared up.

This year may well be known as the year of the protest. With all the marches we’ve seen by trade unions, the riots in the townships by angry citizens, the riots in town by angry (and by many accounts, drunk) supporters of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and the promise of more excitement to come, we may well remember 2011 as a year when we all stopped talking and took to the streets.

A lot of these marches are about the most basic of grievances – a common refrain in Tembelihle, Tembisa and Chiawelo is the increasing cost of living, as symbolised by either the lack of, or incredible expense of electricity. Other marches, like those of the ANCYL and Cosatu, touch on zeitgeist issues like economic disparity along racial lines in South Africa. They are of varying degrees of importance – but one protest we will not remember because it utterly failed to achieve anything.

What is your message?

Occupy South Africa fails at the very first test of a demonstration: there is no effective message.

When I got to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on Maude Street in Sandton on Saturday morning, there was hardly anyone there. I could park in the Village Walk shopping centre and walk to the front of the JSE, where a few people were gathered. What immediately struck me was how obvious it was that there were two types of protests there.

There were a few people holding up signs that vaguely disparaged “the capitalist system”, the so-called 1% and so on. These were clearly the Occupy South Africa people. Then there were people wearing a lot of red, and holding up signs that identified them as being a part of the Democratic Left Front (DLF). Some said “Free the Chiawelo 26”, in reference to the 26 supposed community leaders who were arrested following riots there. Other signs called for a socialist South Africa.

In total, there could not have been more than 50 people there, including the few journalists, photographers and police officers who pitched up.

When the DLF people spoke, their message was one of a system that wasn’t working for them, and needed fixing. When the Occupy South Africa people spoke, they wanted to bring it all down, man.

“We are the people. We are not part of the ANC or the Democratic Alliance or any party. We are the 99%”, one occupier said.

The tiny crowd didn’t seem moved by his message.

The well-known stirrer Andile Mngxitama showed up as well, and was handed the microphone. He said, “We don’t want jobs. We want it all.”

The point is, Occupy JSE had turned into one of those free-for-all public events, with no central message. To compare it to Occupy Wall Street is a joke. I believe that all around the country, similar results were being reported. The sit-ins are being dismissed as the pretensions of whiny white middle class people.

But even so, we must ask the Occupy South Africa people some questions, because there is a need for this sort of thing, but not in the way that they did it.

What exactly is your purpose?

I couldn’t get a coherent sense of purpose at Maude Street on Saturday. The Occupy South Africa Facebook page says, “We are in Unity with all the people on this planet who has said: ‘Enough is Enough’. We have just woken up in our masses and realised – Hey – we are being controlled by corruption and greed – something is wrong with this picture. The 1% of people who own and control everything and who are trying to keep the masses enslaved and asleep has to know that we see through their game.”

So this was more about solidarity with Occupy Wall Street than it was about South Africa?

Then why should any of us (the 99% you purport to speak for) give a damn when we have more immediate problems here?

If your movement is indeed about South Africa, then you the apolitical pretence?

This leads me to my next point about where the real nexus of the problem in South Africa is.

Why a protest at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange?

It’s cute to do a sit-in on the street outside the JSE, but it falls flat on its face if the point is to rail against greed and corruption that have destroyed the lives of middle class and working class people. Occupy Wall Street started in Wall Street for a very good reason – that place has always been the symbol of America’s power elite, not the White House or Capitol Hill. And the world economy’s undoing was forged on Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street can point to the fact that nobody was made to pay for the mistakes that lead to the 2008 credit crunch and subsequent global recession.

The JSE had little to do with that. If anything, Occupy South Africa should be glad for our government, and the strict regulations they put in place to prevent our banks from being destroyed by mismanagement and short-sightedness.

Why the discomfort with wearing a political tag if you’re going to play politics?

The notion that any of the Occupy movements are apolitical is utter nonsense. Their demands are political. The act of protest is political. There may be no formal political leadership and movement, but the protests are certainly political in nature.

When asked by a journalist with what they would replace the capitalist system they find so reprehensible, one of the Occupy South Africa people gave a very jumbled answer. Something about a “resource-based economy where we all share”. Communism, in other words. Needless to say, these people will not be challenged on the weaknesses of communism because they’re not political in nature. It’s perfect!

In fact, why the discomfort with politically aligned civic movement if you claim to be fighting for the same thing?

It was hilarious to watch the DLF people squirm as the Occupy South Africa people said that they weren’t for or against Julius Malema (who is going to blow them out of the water when HE marches to the JSE). There are many civic and grassroots movements that consider themselves supporters of the ANC, but are nonetheless royally pissed off with the ruling party. They want the ANC-led government to deliver on its promises, and those enshrined in the Constitution. Their call is for the system to work, not for the system to change (let us avert our eyes from Mngxitama). In fact, that is the essence of the Living Wage campaign of Cosatu and the Economic Freedom in our Lifetime campaign of the ANCYL. That is why people are throwing rocks at police and burning tyres. They want the system to work.

But Occupy South Africa doesn’t think that all these people’s particular viewpoints are valid. I’m tempted to be enormously insulted by this.

We live in a curious country. One of its oddities is how politically charged civic movements are. It’s just one of those things that make us special.

Occupy South Africa should rethink its list of targets if it wants to be of any relevance to South Africa. And some coherence in message would be nice. 

If however this was just a show of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, we’d like to know too, and not waste our time caring. Because while the concerns of OWS are very valid, we have much bigger problems to worry over. DM



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