In a recent discussion on Talk radio 702, I asked a question that solicited some interesting responses: Have we as a society come to understand activism to be synonymous with violence or the violation of others’ rights?
I cited the recent “unprotected strikes” of Marikana, which ended up with 46 people dead; the continuing truck drivers’ strike with its own litany of vandalism, intimidation and killings; the brandishing of dangerous weapons at gatherings; and the constant underlying threat of violence in our discussion about any subject of contention, especially the assumed or real intransigence of those who wield power and access to resources and privilege. Have we come to believe this is the only way things can be resolved? Is this part of the legacy of our past, a value system which has been ingrained in the way we interact with the hard issues of inequality?
On Saturday, 6 October, we received reports of the outbreak of violence at the now annual Gay Pride parade in Johannesburg. A group of about 20 activists from the One in Nine Campaign, a hitherto little-known lobby-group for the rights of lesbians, particularly in predominantly black areas, had staged a “die-in” – in other words, preventing the Pride procession on Jan Smuts avenue by lying “as if dead” in the path of the procession of revellers. As the thousands of gay party-goers (pun intended), of all races, ages and sizes marched in their kaleidoscope of colours and elaborate floats, they met with a small but determined group of One in Nine activists and were prevented from continuing with their march.
An argument ensued as the activists demanded a minute’s silence in memory of those women who had been brutalised and killed, particularly in predominantly black areas, for being lesbians. The argument escalated into full-blown violence as the organisers tried to remove the activists from the parade’s path. People bitch-slapped and head-butted each other, and dogs were even set on some of the activists in the confusion. An event which was to celebrate the identity and great strides in the recognition of the rights of sexual minorities was marred by this incident. Radio stations, social media and other platforms were abuzz as various aspects of this altercation were hotly discussed. People were fascinated by the prospect of such violence within the gay community, a community which is erroneously believed to be homogenous and harmonious by many, if not most; and the inevitable racialisation of arguments. This is South Africa, after all.
This incident highlights my gripe with the way South Africans seem to be choosing to engage in difficult discussions which centre mainly on issues of in equality. My finger of indictment is pointed at all of us, those who engage in violent protest, those against whom such protests are aimed and the rest of us – the chattering masses who stand on the sidelines and watch in fascinated glee.
In this particular case, the Pride March incident, a group which wished to highlight a worthy and necessary issue, namely the plight of black lesbians, chose to disrupt an event which had been planned to celebrate sexual minorities. Perhaps it was the appropriate place to raise the issue, as it radically raised awareness about One in Nine and the issues they wanted to highlight.
On the face of it, yes, they achieved what they set out to do. They managed to get us all talking, but what exactly are we talking about? Are we talking about the issue they wanted to raise? The brutalisation and killing of black lesbians in townships and rural areas, or are we engaged in a discussion about the protest methodology of a radical activist group? At no stage in the discussion did we really engage with the real issue, the killing of lesbians and the changing of archaic sexist attitudes that exist in these areas. A number of questions must therefore be asked about the radical stances taken by activists in our South African discourse regarding issues of inequality: To what extent are their methods about the issues they purport to be raising, or is it about narrow selfish agendas of megalomaniacs and political chauvinists? To what extent do the methods used to highlight issues, alienate would-be allies, as in the case of One in Nine and the Pride organisers?
Would a more co-operative and inclusive method, particularly with a group that is already sympathetic to the plight of sexual minorities, like the Pride organising board (which they have now antagonised) not have created a larger, stronger, more organised, more resourced campaign that could have taken the message to the townships and rural areas, where it is needed? Has the racialisation of the discussion and the violence seen at the Pride march discouraged those members of society who may not be as politically radical as the One in Nines of this world, who may have been sympathetic, albeit in less overt ways, to the plight of black lesbians in affected areas? How much thinking went into the strategy used by One in Nine and are they indeed the true custodians of the message of awareness about the plight of black lesbians in this country?
The trade-union movement, a once radical lobby group for the rights of workers, is undergoing a legitimacy crisis right now from the very people whose issues they purported to represent once upon a time, namely the workers. In Marikana, Amplats and other companies, workers no longer want to be represented by unions. Union leaders who now look awkward and out of place amongst gaunt and hungry workers with their fat cheeks and bloated stomachs as they sing and dance out of tune in a feeble attempt to regain credibility, are in crisis. They failed to envision a future when they would no longer be the under-dog, and traded their future legitimacy for popular radical activism in the past. They failed to temper the righteous anger of exploited workers with the need for strategic thinking of progressive leadership rendering themselves reactionaries to circumstances rather than progressive influencers of reality. This is because of the unfortunate myth that seems to pervade South African thinking – in other words, that activism is only about dramatic emotional and often destructive behaviour, without consideration for how such infantile behaviour can negatively impact the main cause.
South Africa is a legitimately democratic country with appropriate structures for raising grievances; let’s use them before we engage in irresponsible “activism”. Should there be incidents of intransigence and resistance to reasonable calls for progressive change in any situation, then sober strategic and responsible activism should be engaged. Activism which is loyal to the cause but constantly mindful of the need for the maintenance of democratic values at all times. The infringement of the rights of others in the name of radical activism should never be tolerated under any circumstances, by society as a whole. Such affronts should meet with outrage and unequivocal opposition from society at large, even when the fundamental cause driving the activism is supported.
The end should never justify the means, if the means seek to infringe on others’ democratic rights. It is the duty of activists to find creative ways of raising the cause without trampling on the legitimate rights of others. This must be sacrosanct. The failure of society to be appropriately outraged at such “activism” not only emboldens irresponsible activists, but hamstrings the authorities and renders them impotent.
If the cause is legitimate but met with constant resistance, then popular sentiment must be lobbied in order to facilitate democratic regime change. This is democracy. The idea that one’s cause is more important than those of others because one is willing to engage in confrontational or violent behaviour is short-sighted and dangerous. It is nothing less than a bullying tactic. What happens when everybody begins to think and behave the same way?
While we argue about the virtues and vices of One in Nine’s activism, the barbarians who kill lesbians in the townships and rural areas continue unabated.
Wake up! Grow up! DM
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Aubrey Masango was born in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria. Educated at St Johns College in Johannesburg and later went to the University of Pretoria to study to be a teacher. He was bored. He decided to get out of the corporate rat-race in 2009 because he did not like the person he was becoming in the BEE scene, seeing it as pretentious and unsustainable. These days, Aubrey is a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape talk. His regular show “Talk with Aubrey” is on a Sunday evening at 23h00 to Monday morning at 01h00.
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