Today’s protest culture is a far cry from that of the 80s and 90s, although we’re arguably entering a period where we can talk about a ‘third force’ at work. From the use of live ammunition by police in Durban Deep, to reports of kombi-loads of ANC members clashing with the community in Sebokeng, it appears we are living under the rule of bullets.
I was 11 years old when I took part in my first protest, in Dobsonville, Soweto. It wasn’t about ideology; in fact, I didn’t even think through what was happening.
All the other kids in my street were taking part and so I joined them, even though my mother begged me not to. We were co-opted in that protest by older Azapo, PAC and IFP members, in hindsight probably as part of the conflict being waged in townships between them and the ANC.
Much of the conflict in the townships in the 80s and early 90s is now attributed to a so-called “third force”. There is, of course, some truth to that, but the culture of protest was also far more complex, as my unwitting participation attests.
As Gauteng burned this week we were told by those elected to lead that a “third force” was at work, stoking protest and violence in townships.
From what we have seen, it appears that this time around, the third force is actually a sinister collaboration between police and the ANC to suppress protests.
From the use of live ammunition by police in Durban Deep, to reports of combi-loads of ANC members clashing with the community in Sebokeng, it appears we are entering a period of the rule of bullets under Jacob Zuma’s ANC.
What is leading residents to the streets is a fundamental breakdown in the social contract between the people and their elected government.
Protests do not just happen out of the blue. They are the result of the distance of Zuma’s government from the people.
People vote with the expectation of service delivery in their communities and that the government will act to create an environment where real jobs are created to provide people with opportunities for a better life.
The gains made under Presidents Mandela and Mbeki are being reversed. Through corruption and self-enrichment, the social contract with the people is unravelling in the streets of Gauteng with tragic consequences.
We must never forget that beneath all the headlines and images of burning, police Nyalas and angry protestors, there are more subdued stories of individuals and their families suffering tragic losses.
On Sunday I visited the family of Lerato Rabolila, who was shot dead in Sebokeng this week, allegedly by a group of ANC members. Lerato’s family tell me that police witnessed the shooting and instead of arresting the shooter, handed the gun back to him so that he could go free.
Where is the justice for this grieving family who have lost a son? Where is the justice for Lerato who took to the streets to fight his dreams, believing strongly that the opportunities that should be available to him in this place called Gauteng were not forthcoming?
Sebokeng is not the only site of tragedy. During the height of Durban Deep protests recently I received a call from an activist in the area telling me that Tshepo Babuseng, a member of ours, had just been shot dead by police during a protest against evictions and lack of delivery in that area.
I was asked to come there to meet with residents. This was a community that had been treated like animals by government, with empty promises leading them only to the live ammunition of police in the streets.
I want to know who gave the order to use live ammunition? Who decided people had to die in Durban Deep for the basic rights they were protesting for?
Does the person who gave the order care that one of those bullets found Tshepo Babuseng, a young man in search of opportunity far away from his support system? Like the miners of Marikana, he was shot and killed by police in a place that was not his home.
When his parents got the sudden news of his passing over the phone, they were mortified, community members told me.
Tsepho came to Gauteng, from Taung in the North West. He came here for the same reason our parents did in generations passed.
In search of opportunity in the place of lights, Tshepo took up residence in Durban Deep informal settlement.
I met with his friends at the one room shack where Tshepo stayed, a bed his only furniture. A few days later I joined a heartbroken community in a nondescript hall in Durban Deep where quiet goodbyes were said, his dreams for a better life handed over like a baton to the mourners present.
The more I dwell on the tragic stories of people like Lerato and Tshepo, the more I think back to my first protest in the 80s.
My first memories are those of 1980s South Africa under a state of emergency. I remember SADF soldiers watching us as we left school. I also vividly remember the stayaways when shops were empty, police-presence was high and the community was on a knife-edge.
And now when I see tragedies like Sebokeng and Durban Deep, I can’t help but wonder: what if I had been shot dead during one of those protests in the early 90s?
For the life I have been able to live and the opportunities I’ve had the fortune of taking, I am forever grateful.
We must prevent protests as far as possible through being in constant dialogue with communities. Equally, while protests can be prevented, they should not be undermined when they do take place. That means ethical and effective public order policing must become standard practice. We must lessen the distance between communities and government that is leading people to the streets.
If we believe, we can bring change to Gauteng. We can make this province a place of hope, a place where we can be proud that residents and their families find opportunities for a better life.
And we need not fight running battles in the street to hold our leaders accountable. We do not have to sacrifice our lives like previous generations for the freedoms we deserve.
Those who paid the highest price for our freedom have also gifted us with a weapon more powerful than what was available to previous generations: the vote.
The fight is still within us, and it is still within the grasp of this generation to transform and reconcile our broken society. This is a fight we must take to the ballot box on 7 May. We dare not fail the sacrifices of those who have come before us. DM
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