In a week when protests for housing spilled out on to the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria, our response to them shows once more the irreconcilable contradictions of our lives in these spaces. The very act of protest is born out of the differences in our lived experiences. And the frequency at which these acts occur sets us on a recurring cycle of discontent, dissent, destruction and, for some, the luxury of oblivion.
Before we address the “violence” of protest, we must acknowledge, too, the violence that underlies conditions leading to protest. And it is evident in how we respond to protest.
There is now a sense of expectation, a sense of familiarity, with which we respond to protest, which may well go on to inure us to its urgency. We were reminded this week that winter is almost here and therefore the frequency – and intensity – of protests is expected to increase.
But it is not just the timing of the protests that now feels familiar. The government’s consistent failure to deliver basic services timeously, and likewise its failure to communicate effectively with the people it is meant to serve, sets the course of protest along the familiar trope of an incompetent government misusing its power and denying its people basic rights.
However, we cannot afford to slip into the complacency that deposits all responsibility for a better South Africa at the government’s door. We continue our routine of watching, wondering, hand-wringing and forgetting. We forget that, although the government certainly shoulders responsibility for adequate housing and quality, affordable education, for example, the levers of change are not in the hands of government alone.
This week, the minister of labour launched the Commission for Employment Equity’s annual report‚ which showed that almost all top posts in the country are still held by white men. To date, 21 companies, more than half of which are listed on the JSE, have been fined for noncompliance with equity provisions. Let us not pretend that protests for housing in Eldorado Park, say, are entirely removed from corporates that are stubbornly resistant to expanding the scope of economic opportunity.
And just as we feel that surely, surely this cannot go on, we are reminded how often we have felt this way before. And how, in most cases, nothing has really changed.
But in our response to protests we can also understand how the very act of protest, an act of people rising, is being subverted, not just by the police but also by our understanding of it.
In a democratic society, protest can be as ubiquitous as it is necessary.
Protest is the stop-start rhythm and meter of a searing discontent in South Africa. As much as protest is a language in itself, it is also the punctuation of another language: the complex, layered language that is South African urban life. Protest clarifies what it means to be a human being in these spaces.