Two reports from Occupy South Africa from a libertarian perspective.
Occupy Cape Town
About 200 Cape Town residents participated in the call for a "World Revolution Day" on October 15, inspired by the growing worldwide Occupy movement. We arrived at the Company Gardens next to Parliament in typical Capetonian fashion: mostly late, disjointed, and with a huge array of goals and personal agendas for the first day.
In fact, the majority of "occupiers" arrived so late for the revolution that the clean-shaven undercover security operative (sporting an earpiece and touristy camera) had already deemed the protest to be non-threatening and was long gone. The police barely noticed the relaxed picnic atmosphere that was apparent once the crowd grew to more than 70.
Despite the tame beginnings of #OccupyCapeTown, did the day did have #OccupyWallSt potential? Cape Town is one of the most unequal, segregated and racist cities in the world, with hundreds of thousands of angry (though demoralised) youth waiting for real change. The townships are a ticking time bomb anticipating the intersection between screams of Sekwanele! and sparks of hope that a mass-based social movement could provide.
Would the 99% actually show up? In the end, those who arrived, with the exception of an entourage from Communities for Social Change, were predominantly from the upper reaches of the 99.
There was potential in this space of mostly white privileged activists. Some were acutely aware of how their privilege posed problems for the bottom 80%. Seeking to engage directly with issues of white supremacy, class and patriarchy within the 99%, they tried to create a space of solidarity with poor communities without speaking for them or co-opting their struggles. To these few activists, Occupy Cape Town was an exciting experiment in building radical equality that is actively asserted, not merely assumed.
As the day progressed, however, many of us were disheartened by the most vocal of the 19%. Our four general assemblies seemed to be dominated by well-read internet activists who came with all the answers. Paraphrased crudely:
*The solution is for the poor to buy solar panels for their houses.
*We must all just stop buying things so the system falls apart.
*We should start an internet café for the poor to participate in our internet revolution.
*We must recycle!
*There's another way to occupy, it's by our actions ... Eat baked beans on toast and close bank accounts.
*Machines should take the place of human labour to end wage slavery.
Yet when participants critically reflected on the racial make-up of the meeting, there were demands from a barrage of "colour-blind" activists to stop "making this about race". When class was brought up in the assembly, it was countered with calls not to divide the movement. "We are the 99%!" they cheered. When women spoke (and few did speak in this male-dominated space), it seemed that their points were often ignored. So how did the ideals of an occupation for the immediate assertion of equality get perverted so quickly?
The American radical Malcolm X once said: "If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress." Many say that the post-1994 era was just that: the knife of white supremacy is still present and oppression is now couched in terms of the ideals of a liberal non-racial democracy. Radical groups such as Blackwash use much more direct language: "Fuck the rainbow nation. Coz 1994 changed fokol!"
Abahlali baseMjondolo says that, although there are no more pass laws or legal racism, poor and black people (especially black women) are still oppressed -- by essentially the same system that gave birth to apartheid. And if "oppression", as John Holloway puts it, "always implies the invisibility of the oppressed", one can begin to understand that a theoretical gulf exists between the lived experience of those whose voices are unheard and the liberal white activists who proclaim that we are all, in fact, the same.
The most telling experience of the day was the general debate before Occupy Cape Town marched up Long Street to the offices of e.tv. Someone expressed their concern that a placard proclaiming "FUCK the Rich" would be used against us when filmed by e.tv. Others agreed, saying that it was a violent statement, released negative energy, and was not in line with the peaceful purpose of the "occupation".
Trying to use democratic procedures, several white liberal activists said there should be consensus on the slogans used on our placards and banners; nothing seemingly violent or racist was acceptable. The group of poor black protesters from Mannenberg who had written the placard reluctantly agreed to leave it behind. Yet this decision was resisted by an independently minded group member and that very placard eventually found its way on to TV.
If, as radical feminist bell hooks says, "patriarchy rewards men for being out of touch with their feelings", a corollary could be that, in a white-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist society, white men are not only out of touch with their own feelings and those of others but they are also unaware of the modes by which they belittle and oppress others. This is no less true of a radically democratic "occupation" than within the oppressive institutions of society itself.
It was perhaps to be expected that Occupy Cape Town would be dominated by liberal whites who mostly desired the tweaking of capitalism, or the creation of idealistic utopias by withdrawing from the system (rather than overthrowing it), and who would attempt to build some sort of ideological hegemony based on their own privileged Western orientation.
If some occupiers are more equal than others, it is about time that white male activists who sincerely want to dismantle oppression begin to take seriously the voices of the oppressed from within the 99%.
October 15th marked the official “Occupy Everywhere” day in in 952 cities located in 82 countries. The message even reached my sleepy university town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. I joined a group of my fellow students and marched to the town square marked for Occupation to join with comrades from the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) and the Rhodes university-based Students for Social Justice (SSJ).
Grahamstown is a microcosm of contemporary South Africa, basically it has institutionalized Apartheid inequality and geography. The town is home to one of South Africa’s elite universities and my alma mater—aptly named after one of the great colonial bastards of all time—Cecil John Rhodes and some of the country’s most elite private high schools.
On the other side of town lies a different reality, the majority of Grahamstown’s black residents live in stark informal settlements, in which such basic services such as electricity, sanitation and decent housing don’t exist. Most of the people who live there are forced to shit in buckets, as the government has failed so far to deliver on its promises of toilets, yes in South Africa toilets are a highly politicized issue. Much of the political debate surrounding recent local elections in South Africa revolved around the failure of both the major political parties to build decent toilets in various constituencies, either they gave out buckets and expected people to shit in them or they built open air toilets in the middle of settlements.
Unemployment in Grahamstown is unofficially hovering around 70% and last year the local African National Congress mayor could not account for around 21 million rand (around 3 Million USD) out of a budget of 61 Million Rand or $10 Million (while another 20 million Rand was unspent). In this context, a coalition of activists planned an occupation of Grahamstown’s central Cathedral Square.
Around 200 people showed up, which was not too bad considering the call for the protest only went out the previous weekend and almost the whole Occupy South Africa initiative was social media-based and South Africa is a incredibly internet poor nation. After a series of speeches by members of the community detailing some of the problems facing residents in Grahamstown, such as residents of informal settlements having to battle snakes drawn to the heat of fires in people’s houses in winter. The general corruption and incompetence of our municipal government and the need for a more equitable distribution of resources and power in South Africa (we have recently topped Brazil as the most unequal nation in the world) featured heavily in the discussion as well. One of the popular struggle songs, sung at protests across the country goes like this:
“My mother was a kitchen girl/my father was a garden boy/ that’s why I am a socialist/ I am a socialist.”
Unusually for a protest in South Africa there was no police presence. The South African Police Service (SAPS) essentially are sort of a synthesis between a culture of corruption and a leadership whose vision of policing seems inspired by Michael Bay films. They bear the institutional legacy of a police state in which brutality. towards those of a darker skin was the job description.
The South African Police have begun a process of remilitarizing following last year’s World Cup, which largely consists of introducing military ranks and having our police general Bheki Cele boast of his shoot-to-kill policy towards criminals, last year the police killed around 600 people. Tear gas and rubber bullets are a feature of many protests across the country and earlier this year an innocent man, Andreis Tatane, was murdered by the police on live television at protest against local government corruption. Our previous chief of police is in jail following a long relationship with a drug baron and godfather wannabee, which involved shop shopping and drug trafficking.
We were joined by a few reporters from local media and one TV crew from the national broadcaster (SABC) who kept on demanding that the occupiers produce a spokesperson for movement (they failed to understand the whole thing was organized in an ad hoc fashion). After some deliberation we decided to move the protest to the Muncipal Offices facing just opposite the square, to face the enemy directly.
It was also decided to fetch some of the buckets which function as toilets in the townships were to be brought to the offices as protest against local government’s inability to even get the toilet question right. Following some fiery speeches by the chairperson of the UPM Ayanda Kota , academics and students it was decided that the shit in the buckets would be dumped in the municipal buildings. After dumping the human waste in the heart of the local corruption, the protest moved back to the square and food was brought for everybody and the police finely turned up, while the municipal buildings were shut down for the remainder of the day.
Although reports from other occupations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban were mixed, it seems that the Occupation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange failed completely and the protestors were cleared out. Occupy Grahamstown offers hope to the South Africa left, as it shows that radical students and the poor can form a political alliance based upon equality and solidarity, which could perhaps emulate the United Democratic Front achievements in the 1980s by seriously threatening power in South Africa. Hopefully, Occupy South Africa can move beyond a few disgruntled leftists and link up with the growing social movements in the country and throughout the world.