Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 25 March 2015

Activists, at times you make us miss the point!

What activists have to ask themselves today, especially those on a particular campus in Cape Town, is this: Will they be remembered for a revolution that made a difference, or will they go down in the annals of history as hooligans and flunkies?

When a bunch of Eastern Germans lobbied Ronald Reagan to say the words that would ring through history eternally: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the Berlin Wall fell, not as a mere symbol, or because the pubescent graffiti that had covered it had become an eyesore for residents. It marked the end of the Cold War; it re-united a nation split into two economies, systems of governance and brought blood relatives within each other’s embrace. It changed the trajectory of world history. Activism had won, the world regained its senses; and as the wall fell, so too did the Iron Curtain.

What activists have to ask themselves today, especially those on a particular campus in Cape Town, is this: Will they be remembered for a similar revolution, or will they go down in the annals of history as hooligans and flunkies?

Activism is at the forefront of South African debate. Thanks to University of Cape Town (UCT) students that want to see the Cecil John Rhodes’ statue tumble, talk radio, columns and the remainder of the chattering classes are all abuzz with the ramifications of white privilege and the true legacy of Southern Africa’s most ambitious coloniser. The Rhodes’ statue deserves a turd to its brass façade, he was a really bad guy; but what if the statue falls, will UCT suddenly transform or any of the other “Ivy League”, elite universities across our land? Hardly, but the simple act of throwing human excrement has elicited debate. Yet much of the debate is taken up with questions of why this is being done, with no real substantiation of what the desired outcome is beyond aesthetic symbolism.

We get the general argument: The guy was a brutal racist that profiteered off the backs of poor black people; he should not be celebrated and his continued looming presence on the UCT campus is out of touch with the idea that the institution is a place open to democratic values such as human rights and equality. But what we don’t get is how the fall of a statue will make a difference beyond symbolism. Any campaign starts with something and this might be it – the symbolic fall of Rhodes -and I hope that the suggested next phase might be that the students demand that the academia transform to be more representative of South Africa as a society and that programmes be introduced that ensure that students from previously disadvantaged communities make it into the esteemed institution and actually leave with one of its coveted degrees. Sadly, however, there is no real nexus between this, the desired, ideal outcome, and hurling poo at an inanimate statue.

However, dismissing this protest action as merely a health risk, because festering excrement could make someone really sick, or a reminder that Rhodes “generously” donated the land, or that he is the patron of the most coveted scholarship here in South Africa, does even less for this debate. What is clear is that the point has been missed in the fog of hashtags and sit-ins. Despite my own reservations about the readiness of the average South African for being open-minded and liberated, activists really need to examine why it is that when they protest, as they all too often seem to lose public sympathy.

Whether it is a University’s unwillingness to let go of colonial symbolism and – as asserted – colonial attitudes, or a serious service delivery issue, one thing remains constant: the chattering classes, those with a voice, tend to distance themselves from the “savage” acts of violence and destruction to property that accompany protest action. The need for protest may be, and usually is, legitimate, but the war for public sympathy is lost from the starting blocks.

As a student, at the height of South Africa’s HIV/Aids crisis, when doctors could only prescribe garlic and African potato at the behest of Thabo Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, I sat through a meeting of Aids activists. After many speeches and presentations, a lady in the audience rose and made a point that stuck with me to this day, more than a decade later. She said that there was a serious and concerning misalignment between academic activists and those at the coalface, those at grassroots level. In my brief stint in civil society I marked this misalignment at times, but this misalignment has led to the rest of society not giving a damn.

The academics, like the students of UCT, have a message, but the message is usually not crafted in simple bread-and-butter terms. Intellectuals think issues through, they examine what needs to be redressed and corrected on a philosophical level, persistently wanting to push society toward a normative utopia. They theorise and develop ideas that inform us as to why racism, sexism and economic inequality is wrong and how it is bad for society, but these notions only make sense to the rest of society if they understand it. All too often I find that in as much as intellectual and academic activists understand each other’s arguments and the complex language of symbolism, patriarchy and privilege, the rest of society is left thinking: “So what?”

This ability to evaluate and analyse is important, as it fosters a broader understanding of issues and it has a long-term projected view on outcomes. It is aspirational, taking stock of where an imperfect society is at present and what elements need to be eliminated to get to that aspirational future. This type of analysis and thought is what would keep a community from setting alight a library while protesting a lack of water and sanitation. It asks broader questions, doesn’t react on impulse and anger alone, and should craft a means to have demands met in the most effective and positive way.

It is therefore glaringly obvious that this type of thinking needs to filter through to the rest of society. The rest of society, however, does not occupy their time with existential questions; they need to earn an income to feed themselves and their families, secure shelter and pay taxes. They are mobilised when their needs are not met, when those in power fail to deliver or fail deliver swiftly enough. When they go on strike for salary increases, how does it aid them when union leaders speak of the condition of the proletariat and spew forth Marxist sentiments from an era long gone?

Does jargon around gender relations and equity provide the interventions needed immediately that would save the life of someone who is the victim of gender-based violence? It is not that these questions should be discarded, but activism really needs to address two key questions for activists and the communities they purport to represent:

  • Does a course of action have an impact toward a desired outcome?
  • Does a course of action address the actual needs of the people affected?

If you cannot answer these two questions in an affirmative manner and through simple means, then what is the point? How do people understand what your fight is all about, how do they lend you their support and how do you become the voice of the masses? DM

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