Editorial: A protest of hope

#OccupyNPA — it could be a new movement, or at least a new hashtag, except it hasn’t caught on just yet. And that’s despite the occupation of the National Prosecuting Authority’s offices in Cape Town this past week by a group of United Democratic Front veterans including Zackie Achmat of Treatment Action Campaign fame. 

The group goes by the somewhat confusing moniker #UniteBehind, and its members are calling for the arrest of President Jacob Zuma, both on the basis of the 783 counts of corruption against him, which the Supreme Court of Appeal’s recent judgment in effect reinstated, and in light of the tsunami of compromising information that has come into the public domain linking him and his family to state capture and vast amounts of personal enrichment.

The action, one in a series of planned acts of civil disobedience, leaves us smiling — eight people arrested for occupying the NPA offices? It sounds like a trifling thing and they were released the next day after being charged with trespassing. But images of Achmat and others sitting on the floor of the NPA’s offices, shouting back at officers sent to remove them, leave us smiling, perhaps because it is an image of a targeted protest, uncowed by the immensity of the state, or the smallness of their number.

And South Africans are so inured to protests that a small protest at an NPA office in Cape Town barely registers. But it’s worth something, no doubt, when a protest action leaves us smiling. 

Compare this one with the mournful display of mostly white people protesting against farm murders, dressed in black, and with some elements hauling out the old South African flag. Or contrast it with scenes of people dressed in the colours of the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance outside the Bronkhorstspruit magistrate’s court, ahead of the appearance of a local man accused of rape. 

Protesters there are reported to have sung “Kill the boer, kill the farmer”,  emptied bins in the street and to have been dispersed by police firing stun guns.

In South Africa, protest is often a visceral reaction to injustice. But it does not always yield immediate results. Too often protests fizzle out as our focus shifts to the next big crisis. And yes, protest movements are rarely neat or comfortable to watch. But it is the single most important element of our democracy — the ability of citizens to rise up against power.

And good on Zackie & Co. It has taken that old generation of activists to show us that we cannot stop moving for a better South Africa, no matter how ridiculous the protest action may seem. A protest that is rooted in the ideas of justice and equality is a statement of hope, in ourselves, our processes and this crazy world. We cannot extinguish that hope. 

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