M&G Deep Read: The politics of protest


The politics of protest

by Jared Sacks, The Mail & Guardian (There is a longer version of this piece at the Amandla Blog).

Protests have plagued Cape Town for years, but now they’ve begun to bleed out of township boundaries and into spaces that affect the middle class.

The City of Cape Town is currently being rocked by a spate of road blockades and other significant protests. Certain liberal NGOs have joined the Democratic Alliance in condemning the protests claiming that they are violent and “politically motivated”.

Protests in the form of marches, the burning of tyres, and road blockades, have been happening every week throughout the city for years. Most go unreported.

What seems to be different about recent protests, however, is that they’ve begun to bleed out of township boundaries and into spaces that affect Cape Town’s middle class. The blocking of Duinefontein, Vanguard and Landsdowne roads a couple of weeks ago and the recent closure of the N2 freeway by shackdwellers in Gugulethu are important examples of this shift.

On Monday last week, protesters succeeded again in blocking key arterial roads in the City: Duinefontein, Landsdowne and Mew Way, as well as attempting to repeat last Friday’s closure of the N2 – this time near Khayelitsha and by Sir Lowry’s Pass. More shack settlements seem to be joining in each day.

Seeing little change since 1994, many activists who have begun to take civil disobedience into middle class spaces argue that it is better to be vilified and taken notice of than to be given “lip service delivery” from the government.

Over the years community activists have repeatedly found that following the “correct” channels gets them nowhere. The escalation of protests and the turn to more disruptive tactics is a response to complete lack of substantive democracy for anyone who can’t afford to purchase it.

A number of actors are entering into the politics of popular protest in Cape Town. These include the country’s key political parties and their affiliates in the youth leagues, the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco), ward committees and development forums. These organisations, while they may have some popular support in protesting communities, are generally seeking to leverage attention off the protests’ legitimate grievances.

Civil disobedience

The closing of roads, burning of tyres and destruction of government property (all by themselves constituting non-violent acts of civil disobedience) almost always have the tacit support of the settlement where the protest originates – even if sometimes only a small portion of the settlement is actively engaging in such acts of civil disobedience.

These protests, especially when they are coordinated to have a maximum disruptive effect on the socio-economic life of the middle class and elite, can have a profoundly positive effect in the long run. Even when some of these actions lead to a certain amount of violence (such as self-defence against routinely vicious actions of the police), there can be favourable outcomes for society.

All over the world, mass civil disobedience (whether violent or non-violent) has significantly altered the course of history, toppling dictators, changing economic policies, and turning public opinion. The Egyptian revolution is a case in point. Hap protesters not physically battled the paramilitary police, thrown rocks, engaged in thousands of road blockades, and burned down government buildings which were key symbols of the dictatorship, Mubarak would have likely remained in power for the rest of his life.

It is quite concerning, therefore, that a collection of Cape Town-based activist oriented NGOs have been making a significant effort to vilify certain forms of protest that do no fit within its directors’ and funders’ view of what constitute ‘acceptable’ forms of protest.

To be sure, many of these NGOs can claim important victories. The Treatment Action Campaign, for instance, has had a significant impact in helping turn the tide away from Aids denialism. However, just as often, well-funded protests led by NGOs have gone nowhere. Despite bringing more than 10 000 people into the streets of Cape Town last year, Equal Education has not been able to compel the government to build more libraries. Instead, the Western Cape is now closing down 27 schools in the province.

Of course, this is not to say that legal and well funded mass protests are worthless. They definitely have the ability to have a significant effect. Yet, when poor black communities cannot afford to hire 100 buses to bring enough people to Parliament to make a difference, then other protest tactics must also be considered. When the “proper” channels of protest (including legal challenges, petitions, marches, etc.) are tried year after year to no avail, oppressed communities have every right to engage in other more disruptive acts of civil disobedience.


One of the best examples of real immediate success from illegal protest tactics was the 2007 blockade of the N2 by thousands of residents of the Joe Slovo shack settlement in Langa. The community was resisting the then Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s attempting to evict 20 000 Joe Slovo residents to the bleak, underdeveloped township of Delft. After authorities ignored all of their various legal protests and attempts to negotiate, the residents’ blockade of the N2 became the key turning point in their struggle. The blockade, a statement that reverberated through public opinion, eventual destroyed the state’s political will to actually carry out the evictions.

Yet in 2010, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its allied NGOs, together with the South African Communist Party, issued a startling attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo’s non-violent but disruptive informal settlement strike which they recklessly caricatured, in a manner that drew heavily from the negative stereotypes that are frequently held against poor people. During the recent protests, Vuyiseka Dubula, general secretary of the TAC, penned an article in which she called for protests “built on alliances, strategy, clear realistic demands and the genuine intent to improve the lives of people”.

The concern with this assertion is not that alliances, strategy, demands or intent to improve people’s lives are wrong. Instead, the problem here is the self-righteous assumption that large numbers of shackdwellers who are protesting are somehow incapable of thinking for themselves, lack “genuine intent” to improve people’s lives and are in fact actively trying to destroy their their communities.

Whether or not the ANC Youth League is involved in diluting the authentic grievances of the community, the truth is that people are protesting as a strategy to improve their lives.

Thus, what Vuyiseka, TAC and its affiliated NGOs are really saying is that communities should protest their way, should build alliances under their umbrella, and should make only “realistic” (reformist) demands that are acceptable to their vein of sectarian liberal politics. Yet their approach to donor-funded activism often does not work or is unaffordable to shackdwellers – thereby dictating who can afford to protest.

Of course, we must still oppose authoritarianism, recklessness and political opportunism when it emerges within popular struggles. Violence for the sake of violence is nothing but dangerous and regressive. Stoning buses that try to cross through the erected barricades is reckless and does not help protesters’ cause. But to oppose a key protest tactic of the poor such as road blockades, on principle, is to condemn a genuine mass demand for social inclusion and relegate social change to donor funded NGOs.

The anti-apartheid struggle took a multitude of different strategies and organisations to overthrow the Nats. Likewise, in the post-1994 era where neo-apartheid remains a defining feature of South African society, a truly united democratic front will also have to be open to many different ways of struggling for change.