Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 11 April 2017

April 7, 2017: The day middle-class apathy died in South Africa

There has to be something seriously abnormal for middle-class South Africans to self-mobilise around the country and take to the streets in the numbers and manner experienced on 7 April. And while it was the seriousness of one man’s action – his lack of meaningful explanation for his removal of the Finance Minister and his Deputy – that triggered the public’s anger, it was the size and swift response of society’s solidarity that took the nation and those in authority by surprise.

The message was clear, use your presidential prerogative wisely and rationally, but always in the interests of the people. Do so irrationally and in a manner that takes your people for fools, and you may trigger the uprising you don’t need. It did not take much for the people to see how “Club Presidentia” was able to pull their stray cats back into line, after one quick meeting to remind them of who had the power over whom.

The pathetic public apology that ensued was only surpassed by the pain and suffering the dissenting trio must have experienced from the “morality bypass” they had undergone. “Apologies accepted my subjects, now potter off and don’t stray far from the clan, if you are to enjoy your tender treats now.”

The people were not fooled. Instead they had been pissed off once too often and the mixed race middle class (now referred to by the President as the “racist class”) decided to express their frustration at the emperor’s lame excuse for more youthful minds as a reason to abandon Treasury’s wisdom. The ratings agencies agreed, as did everyone else with common sense, having realised that weak controls over the national purse would destabilise our economy, increase our debt, worsen the extent of corruption and ultimately reduce our currency and national prosperity to junk.

Under normal circumstances, frustrating news would elicit moans and groans from the middle class and for a few days social media would be a-Twitter with negative sentiment. Headlines and opinion piece comments would reflect on the discomfort of bad news. A few days would pass and a new “lowered expectations of normality” would return.

This time around, President Zuma had pushed the envelope too far. Frustration was replaced with infuriation and it took very little planning on the back of a social media savvy public – with some direction provided by a few respected and recognised civil action organisations – to generate a well co-ordinated peaceful protest, the likes of which democratic South Africa had never seen from this sector of society before.

What made the 7 April protest extraordinary was that it was not organised by a political party or an organised labour entity. It was instead an action triggered by civil society and a number of leaders who heard the howls of frustration and suggested a call to action; “Moan less and express your frustration through a show of unity by taking to the streets – peacefully.” Do so on one day and sacrifice a day’s leave if need be. Better still, business owners, if you too are angry, give your staff a day off and close your doors, if you can afford to do so.

The day of Friday 7 April was proposed by civil society leadership and the energy began to unleash itself. Calls came from towns and cities around the country – “we also want in on the action”. And so it was that with a little guidance and suggestions, communities elected their leaders to take control, apply for protest permissions, select the venues and get on with arranging themselves.

The fears of protest scenes filled with tear gas and rubber bullets were quickly overcome by messages and calls for calm, focus, peaceful protest. “Stop focusing on reasons not to participate and ignore misinformation being spread by the government propaganda machine.”

The energy was immense and before we knew it, Friday the 7th had arrived. Those who said it would be a damp squib were silenced. Not even a last-minute press conference by the acting Police Commissioner, Kgomotso Phahlane, to warn of harsh police action to quell a mistakenly unapproved protest could stop the energy. Fortunately, smart and fast reaction by Mark Heywood of SECTION27 and his legal team were able to get a last-minute court order to enable the public’s constitutional rights to play out in Pretoria – the last hurdle had been removed.

The one incessant question or comment repeatedly thrown at us through OUTA’s social media platforms was, “What does it help to protest? It doesn’t change things. It’s a waste of time.” Our simple response was, “If you think complaining and doing nothing will do more for change, then sit down and keep complaining. For those who feel otherwise, participate and express your sentiment in whatever way you feel comfortable with.”

The rest is history, but it is history that has given rise to a new reality. Something has changed. Jacob Zuma may still be in power, but the psyche of all who protested and the millions who saw the images on TV and in the media is different today. There is a new understanding of people power by the middle class who largely received their first taste of what peaceful protest looks and feels like.

Additionally, the governing authorities also got a whiff of a new energy and anger by the middle class, the most powerful sector of society. What was more impressive is that the protests were multiracial, multicultural, multireligious and apolitical. The authorities certainly underestimated the turnout and a picture of the seeds of an Arab Spring might have even crossed their minds.

The outcome of this peaceful protest was more meaningful in its display of solidarity by a multiracial middle class, which essentially has more potential for an impact on government’s agenda than any other sector of the economy. It is after all this sector that does have the ability to systematically shut down the economy for a day, two days, a week or more if need be.

This is the sector of the population that now has a taste of their power to show solidarity when called on to act against government. In future, this may be undertaken with more marches, but it could also manifest itself in ways of amending its spending habits that may impact on government’s ability to raise revenue. It may take the form of a stand against companies that support government’s agenda. Many actions can and will be devised by this powerful and connected sector of society – in peaceful protest – against a ruling party and government that refuses to heed the call to address the unacceptable conduct of their President.

So what happens now? The first march was without doubt a resounding success, but how does one retain the energy? The answer to this question is simple in one sense, and complex in another. Simple in that a lot more protest and organised activity from all sectors of society is being planned for the days, weeks and months ahead. Complex in that it will have a number of levels of participation and successes along the way.

The energy will ebb and flow and the people will be asked to do one thing – remain committed. This is a journey, not a sprint. “Stay connected to the programme and participate when you can” will be the general call to society.

The pictures unfolding now point to a collaboration among political parties to march and Wednesday 12 April appears to be the date set for this activity. Calls and plans are being developed for a march on Parliament on 18 April, for the vote of no confidence against the President in Parliament. If Parliament doesn’t surprise society and no joy is attained here, the next mass rally which intends to combine all sectors of society (labour, politics, civil society, religions, academia and business) appears to be planned for Thursday – Freedom Day – 27 April.

In addition, there will be court challenges (brought by political parties and civil society) and more action to convince political leaders, litigators and society at large that Zuma must go. Messages may be sent to foreign investors that all new contracts that have no basis of rationality or fundamental need by South Africa could face the challenge of being negated or reversed at cost to them. Accordingly, actions may be presented to international courts to ensure foreign countries are notified of these calls by various sectors of society.

A myriad actions are expected to continue unabated and the people will be called on to participate time and time again, never to relent, until the current President has vacated his office. Thereafter, the ruling party will hopefully restore this government to honour and respect the values of our Constitution, just as Nelson Mandela once did when he and others set this nation on a moral path of growth and harmony.

There is no doubt that a single march will not make Zuma step down. However, it has done a fantastic job of uniting millions of South Africans with a common vision. April 7 was a test for South Africa and it passed with flying colours, proving to millions that the survival and prosperity of their country is worth standing up for. DM

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