I’ve been posting a fair bit lately about the horrific violence at the Lonmin Marikana mine site and about what it means for modern South Africa. The crisis at this site, still ongoing as I write this, is pretty clearly bringing South Africa to an important turning point in its political history.
If you have been reading me, you already know what I think about what is going on in Marikana. I am disturbed that the police did not seriously try rubber bullets or some other less obviously lethal method of responding to the protesters. I am disturbed that the protesters were carrying weapons from the start and had already attacked both other miners and members of the security and police forces. I am disturbed the the union to which a majority of the miners belong seems oblivious to conditions at the mine and compromised by their cozy ties with South Africa’s government – and that obliviousness is a major contributing factor to the explosion of anger we’ve seen at Marikana. I am especially disturbed that the one group which has contributed the most to this horror story, Lonmin’s management, have managed to stay out of public view and away from deserved criticism.
If you have been reading me, you know that I think there is enough criticism to go around in this sorry mess.
But what should South Africans be doing instead? I am presenting you with this article, from South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, as a possible answer to that question.
The city of Cape Town has recently faced a wave of protests, which have gotten less coverage in the newspapers, but which have affected residents of the Cape Town metropolis even more than Marikana has. For the most part, these have not been violent protests, but they have been “in your face”, disruptive protests of a fairly high order. They have largely been based on the tactic of blocking highways and attempting to “take civil disobedience into middle class spaces”, as the author of this article puts it.
I can’t give you an unequivocal defence of these kinds of tactics, but I do broadly support them. This kind of protest, and not the festival of violence at Marikana, is the kind of protest that’s really going to change things.
The reason I can’t unequivocally say I’m on board with this kind of protest is that I know some yahoos will always find a way to purposefully escalate some such protests into violence, or into being misdirected in their objects. But the basic idea here is to let people who are already disrupting _your_ life know that you can do the same back to them.
One thing that always impressed me about the anti-apartheid struggle was that, even when the anti-apartheid movement chose to pursue the “armed struggle” in the early 1960s, in the face of the tremendous repression of the white government, there were numerous attempts to pursue social justice in South Africa through more peaceful means. Each of those attempts were met by increased hostility from the government, and things escalated…but it always mattered to me that the movement against apartheid tried nonviolence and reason first. They only moved to more coercive strategies once those using those tactics were jailed and physically attacked for expressing their opinions.
This struggle is different, of course. The tactic used by the South African middle class and the current government is just to blow past the wishes of people so poor they cannot get anyone to respond to their needs and preferences. But when these poor people undertake protests like these, the jail and the physical attacks are the next step. The middle class and the government can point at the protesters and say “They had this coming, they broke the law!” True enough, but jail looks like Club Med to a lot of these activists, and to the very poor, risking death by confrontation with the police might seem like a risk worth taking.
South Africa’s future may contain more Marikanas. Sadly, there is a culture of violence, a dreadful after-effect from the experience of the war against apartheid, which pretends that the more guns and machetes and spears you wave at the problem, the more things will change.
I would be happier to think South Africa’s future will contain more of the Cape Town-style protests. It would be preferable to think that South Africa’s poor will heed two imperatives – to hew to nonviolence, as much as it is possible to do that, but to confront, as energetically as possible, those who ignore their suffering and live in spaces of comparative privilege and comfort.
Faced with such protests, those who live in those spaces will have to confront who they really are. There will be an impulse to surround themselves in self-congratulation, to invent new reasons why they deserve their privilege while the mass of poor people around them probably had their poverty coming, to attribute character malaises to thousands of people rather than credit the idea that even one of them might have a good reason for impeding them taking a trip down a public highway. But some people will get it. Some people will see that those living in shacks in the township might have preferences that matter as well, and understand the trip downtown to sip a latté at Starbucks is not quite as important as what they’re fighting for.
It will be interesting to see what path South Africa takes. But equally interesting to me is what path the countries of the rest of the world – including the countries of North America – take. We don’t have exactly the same conditions as Marikana or Cape Town here, but in many ways, we confront a choice between those same two paths.