Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 10 September 2013

Viva the hecklers!

Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at Wits last night, addressing the National Development Plan and its role in shaping the future. He was not given a heroes’ welcome on campus. Instead, the man who once led thousands of miners in protest against the Apartheid regime was heckled ceaselessly during the event.

The starkest moment came when Ramaphosa suggested “the story of Marikana has yet to be told”. Quickly, a heckler reminded the former union boss, and all of those who had gathered in the Great Hall to hear him and other NDP Commissioners speak, that “you called them criminals”. At another point in the evening two women stood by the stage where Ramaphosa sat and screamed at him, “You have blood on your hands”. One asked, “How do you sleep at night?”

It couldn’t have been a fun experience for Ramaphosa, but it marked an important moment in our democracy.

My view has always been that for the sake of those who have taken their time to attend a gathering where politicians speak, common courtesy requires those with views to hold their tongues and wait for question time like everybody else. Then they are free to disagree and challenge and spark debate.

It has become clear that this common-sense approach works best in a democratic system where the accountability mechanisms are functioning well. Our democracy has too many deficits, especially in the accountability department. In a political system that works (and is not run by British people) it is rude to interrupt people as they speak. Where you have office bearers who are directly elected and therefore are accountable to constituents, it is important to give them the space to speak and to be heard. Indeed, given the centrality of speech making to the work of a politician, and given the importance of direct interactions between those who lead and those who are governed, I have long held that it is essential that we respect political spaces that allow for the interchange of ideas.

Last night, I changed my mind. In some ways, it was inevitable that this moment would come. When the African instinct to respect elders would crash headlong into the long and rich tradition of street protest and resistance. Of course, Julius Malema and his Youth League comrades were great hecklers. But theirs was a rowdiness that was clearly part of a political agenda of belligerence and intimidation. Last night was different. It harked back to the tactics of the Treatment Action Campaign in the early 2000s. The righteous indignation of the aggrieved and the callousness of the elite make for fascinating politics.

What is even more interesting is that the hecklers in the audience last night, and the poo throwers in the Western Cape, stand in stark contrast to the culture of pretend chumminess that has begun to characterise the ruling party and its increasingly bizarre alliance in the last few months. While the alliance partners stab one another in the back even as they pretend that they all attend one broad (highly dysfunctional) church together, real South Africans are done faking it.

It is as though we have decided that the more fraudulent the elite become with their corruption scandals and closed door board room discussions that seek to silence reports about their own wrongdoing, the more real and jarring our political protests must be. In other words, the tactics of protesters are shifting in direct response to the conduct of the political elite. The more egregious the lies and obfuscations of our politicians – be they ruling party or opposition- the more outrageous and fearless the protest culture becomes.

A few years ago, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) released a study suggesting that in almost all service delivery protests that became violent, angry protestors had been forced to wait hours for politicians who were “running late”, or had been insulted by local government leaders. Heckling provides an interesting political corollary to service delivery protests. Last night, the hecklers seemed to become bolder in response to Ramaphosa’s refusal to address questions about Marikana and his involvement in the events leading up to the massacre. A few weeks ago at the Ruth First lecture, Trevor Manual also refused to answer questions about Marikana. I do not condone lawlessness or violence on the part of protesters, but I also cannot condone the arrogance in our leaders that often incites violence. (Let’s not forget that the Zamdela riots were sparked by the no-show of minister Richard Baloyi – Ed)

Last night’s event demonstrates a hardening in our political culture. The service delivery protests, the killing of Andries Tatane, the corruption at the highest levels; these have created the ingredients for the Marikana Movement. For a long time now people have been angry and fed up. Last night marked the end of civility amongst the chattering classes.

For the first time in over two decades Cyril Ramaphosa was treated as though he were an ordinary man. Stripped of the automatic respect we typically accord our “leaders”, his handling marked a turning point in our politics. While the ruling party will no doubt view the hecklers as “unpatriotic” I see them as heroes. Our protesters, and indeed our politics, are coming of age. Sadly, it is unlikely that politicians will recognize this until they are forced to do so – at the ballot box. DM


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