The same, yet different

The 30th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising provides an occasion to reflect on the legacy of these remarkable events. Many believe that the 1970s initiated a new phase in the struggle against apartheid.

In his book Citizen and Subject, Mahmood Mamdani argues that this period marked a shift from the exile-based armed resistance to a broad internal popular struggle.
This culminated in a general uprising throughout the 1980s, focused on urban living conditions.

The question of what an oppositional urban civil society does after independence is a fundamental one. Nominal citizenship has been achieved, but as a lived reality that translates into material advances, citizenship has to be claimed and enacted on an ongoing basis.

Struggles around the living conditions of townships and shack settlements today can undoubtedly claim 1976 as an ancestor in the long line of struggles for citizenship. The apartheid state began to unravel with the events of the 1970s, but the continuing injustices of urban exclusion and deep poverty have yet to be fully resolved. The youthful irreverence of 1976 is as necessary today as it ever was.

This, however, is not a position shared by all. Power-holders today frequently claim to be mystified by people taking to the streets to voice their concerns. At an imbizo last year, President Thabo Mbeki said: “We must stop this business of people going into the street to demonstrate about lack of delivery. These are the things that the youth used to do in the struggle against apartheid.”

In this quote, we see that historical protest against the apartheid state continues to be the defining model through which many of us attempt to understand protests today. We see also a suggestion that the time of protest against government is over. It seems that while protest was valid in the struggle for democracy, it is not believed to be a valid part of democracy.

One would reach this conclusion by arguing that protests are superfluous in the post-apartheid era. Given that protests were necessary against the undemocratic system, and that system has now gone, what possible purpose could there now be in taking to the streets?

The argument goes that there are so many more mature strategies enabled by our democracy such as working directly with a government committed to its poor constituency, working through the structures of the ruling party, or even forming alternative parties within the political system.

This logic might explain why protesting against the African National Congress government is sometimes received with such indignation. Are these impertinent protesters likening us to the apartheid government? The National Party was expressly against the interests of the majority of the country while the ANC has been voted into power by the nation, and understands itself to be a party for the people. Surely it is not necessary to shout so loudly to be heard?

Power-holders are not the only ones to use the lens of the liberation struggle in order to view protests today. A few years ago, various commentators in the media began suggesting that if the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was to stand in an election it would do well. While it was fun to speculate, likening the TAC to a party was entirely inaccurate given that it did not express any interested in political power. To the contrary, it was attempting to work with the existing government in order to extract a very specific service from it; treatment for HIV/Aids.

Activists themselves also apply the liberation model to contemporary events, with some even claiming to embody its spirit. Some talk of building a new party on the left and eventually winning seats in order to install programmes that will better deliver social justice to the nation.

It is doubtful, however, that such opinions characterise all who participate in social movements. We might imagine that in the future, social movements might be associated with nascent opposition parties. For now, many who participate in social movements remain ANC supporters. Their point of entry is to get the government doing things differently rather than to try to replace it.

The “no vote” campaigns held by the Landless Peoples Movement and others in the 2004 national elections and by a variety of organisations in the 2006 local government elections seem to have struck a nerve with the government. Yet, the ANC could hardly ask for a better expression of loyalty given high levels of frustration that inevitably result from poverty.

It is here where the historical understanding of the role of protest fails to explain what is happening today. The forms of expression, state responses and the campaign issues might appear the same today. We have defiance campaigns, struggle songs, and we even still have riot police, tear gas and arrests. Today, as in the past, people are fighting for water, electricity, housing, and even—it seems—the right to be in the city.

However, the politics behind protest today is quite different from protest in the past. Historically this was subsumed within the framework of opposition to apartheid; while these same fights are now generally taking place within a framework which recognises the legitimacy of the ruling party.

Protest today is an expression of the citizenship that many did not have before 1994. One of the things citizens can do is make demands on their government. This is why we see the frequent use of the courts to ensure the government is honouring the rights of the citizens of the country. Whether this is the constitutionally enshrined right to housing or to protest itself the government has frequently been taken to task in the courts.

In addition to protest that claims citizenship, we have seen protest that reflects dynamics internal to the ANC itself. These include service delivery protests, protests against imposed local councillor candidates, cross border municipalities, and the Zuma affair. The grassroots and various factions are increasingly seeking to define their party for themselves rather than be subjected to centrally-taken decisions.

In this there is a tacit concern about an undisciplined support base—held in contrast to the discipline of historical times. Such arguments, however, would surely rely on a rose-tinted view of the past which sees events such as 1976 as seamlessly welded into liberation history, and downplays the significant and entirely healthy historical tensions within the anti-apartheid movement on post-liberation development approaches. A passive membership might be more convenient for power holders, but to the credit of our democracy we have a thinking, reflective and critical population which is empowered to call the representatives that it elects to account.

The ANC frequently deploys its heritage of struggle as a source of its legitimacy today. Yet it seems to want to say that it can be nobody else’s heritage and that it has a monopoly. Fortunately, the anti-protest sentiments being expressed by some of today’s power-holders run contrary to legal provisions which allow anyone to hold a protest. The struggle tradition need not be retired to an ever more mythical and exclusive past, but can be a lived reality that enriches our democratic present.

Richard Ballard is a research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is co-editor of Voices of Protest: Social Movements in Post-Apartheid South Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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