Violent protests: Community organisers weigh in
Demonstrations at university campuses last week put the issue of violent protests in the spotlight. From service delivery to student demonstrations, a combination of frustrated activists and harsh police responses can lead to throwing stones and burning buildings and vehicles. But can violent protests be justified and, if so, when? By GREG NICOLSON.
Note: The responses are edited replies from conversations held with each community organiser.
Mmetsa Mahlabela, #Rhodes Must Fall
Any form of protest marginalised people embark on is justified. But if you want to talk about especially violent protest, I think it’s justified when you’re dealing with structural violence, because the system is set up in a way where, no matter any form of protest you choose to embark on, it’s always going to resist and its resistance is going to be violent. So you always have to respond violently. I mean poor black students, for instance, don’t have resources to fight the system any other way except to be violent. We don’t have money to take the university to court for the things they put black students through. The only thing that they’ll listen to, other than the legal route, is violence.
You firstly weigh up what you’ve done so far to try to get the attention of whatever it is you’re protesting against. For instance, for us, just take last year. I don’t know how many meetings we sat in with the university and the last meeting we had was in late November and it was a 12-hour meeting. All of these meetings we’re going into with very well detailed lists of demands and just writing those demands down and putting them forth takes so much energy. Then we go into a meeting, a 12-hour meeting, and we come out with nothing.
We look out how much we’ve given in, how much we’ve given ourselves to the university, to the cause, and then how much you’ve gotten in return, and then we see that we’ve sat in so many meetings, we’ve emailed this person, we’ve had a petition, we’ve done this, we’ve done that, and it’s not working.
It leads to a point of frustration which results in violence, ultimately. A lot of the times the violence is just a spontaneous expression of pain. We don’t sit and think, “This is what we’re going to do.” But in the moment when you’re just so frustrated it’s an expression of pain.
Siphiwe Segodi, Thembelihle Crisis Committee secretary
We don’t advocate violence and we don’t advocate war, because most of the time such [action] impacts negatively on the working class. Protesting violently is something that we don’t justify as leaders. We think people can make their point without necessarily embarking on violence.
But we do acknowledge that by nature protests are disruptive; I think that point needs to be clarified. That disruption is what sometimes brings about attention from authorities. Unfortunately, sometimes authorities are so deaf to the cries of communities out there, not only communities but I’d say the working class more generally, including in workplaces… They are so deaf to the extent that workers or communities find themselves frustrated to such an extent that they resort to violent actions to try and attract the attention of authorities. Unfortunately, more often than not, you find that such violence impacts negatively to the class itself.
For example, as Thembelihle Crisis Committee we don’t believe in the killing of scabs, people who go and work when others are on strike. But also we are against scabbing. We don’t believe in the killing of people who are cooperating with authorities to try and supress progress on the side of communities. We don’t believe that good people should be killed. We believe that good people need to be warned and persuaded to realise the need to struggle and see the gains together because it’s for the benefit of everyone.
#Fees Must Fall, University of Witwatersrand*
It’s important to question ourselves on what exactly does violence entail. Violence comes in many forms, and what has seemed to be the violence that gets people talking is the one that is inflicted by protestors or students. We’ve exhausted all the non-violent forms of protest that white supremacy approves of, and as students we find ourselves in positions where we no longer have anything to lose, nor bargain with, with the people we seek to engage to bring about the change that we demand.
Violence is always relevant given the nature of structures we are dealing with. When one looks into history, negotiating was tried and tested and it clearly does not work. We need to shift away from focusing on physical violence and rather have greater discomfort with the non-physically violent nature of the white oppressive system we are faced with. When students get excluded, that serves as violence unto them. Hence our response is and will forever remain legitimate.
What do we understand as violent protest when we continually engage with a system that is inherently violent? That we have to be reduced to dancing caricatures of protest year-in and year-out is violence against us as black students and so we reserve the right to respond with just as equal forms of violence as the system subjects us to.
Violence will bring an end to the world as we know it and cleanse all the evil, give rise to a completely new world where the only race that matters is the human race. A world in which I do not have to always be reminded of our blackness and white supremacy is no longer a thing. A world in which there is nothing about white supremacist psychologically, philosophically, cognitively, academically, socially, architecturally, culturally or even financially that signifies a higher position above any other group.
Sometimes you have to pick the gun up in order to put it down and that is what we as Fees Must Fall have done because history has taught us that the oppressor is not going to willingly give us our freedom and will eventually call us into a negotiation table and you will be outfoxed and still remain subservient to his rule. A revolution cannot be suspended and we will definitely not suspend this one.
*The Fees Must Fall movement wanted its views attributed to the organisation rather than an individual.
Mzwakhe Mdlalose, Abahlali baseMjondolo deputy president
As Abahlali baseMjondolo we think that it is not justifiable at all. The problem is just before it gets to a violent protest – because sometimes it starts because of frustration and secondly [how] people are being handled in terms of their concern by those who are accountable to answer or to take the consideration of what they are raising at that given moment.
That is where [violence] has been started sometimes, but not most, just because some people started with a very peaceful march but ended up in a violent way. Because maybe those who are accountable to their concerns may just call the police to come and assist in terms of disturbing them from the place where they are.
When the police come their approach is completely different sometimes. It’s also violent to them as well because maybe police just come with their teargas and stuff just to disturb them without even asking them what brings them there.
We are against violent protest just because you might find that the community just march in their places, maybe march against the councillor in the area, only to find that maybe some people might demolish the office of the councillor, where their things are, like letters of proof of residence. The office might be burnt down. The facilities might be burnt down, where the facilities belong to the community.
The whole community will suffer because the property belongs to the community, not the councillor or any official in the government. It’s their own property so they should have to look after the property before they demolish it.
Jabu Mahlangu, South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) spokesperson
We hold a view, which is obviously entrenched in the Constitution, that protests are important for people to express their view. As a general rule we subscribe and support protests but the issue of violent protests is a matter of grave concern to Sanco.
Sanco’s stance is that violent protests take us back. It denies people of opportunities to progress in life. Look, we’ve come a long way as a community-based organisation and I’ve been involved in a myriad of protests but even back in apartheid, protests would not target community-based essentials like hospitals, schools, clinics and so on. It would target instruments by which apartheid was pursuing its agenda, be it military installations, police and soldiers.
Now the protests that are happening in communities where clinics, libraries, schools, as well as individuals are damaged and some of them killed is a serious, serious concern for Sanco.
The violent protests in our schools – we support the protests. There are issues of imposing unnecessarily stringent measures, be it language, be it questions of access and a host of other problems that we have, including outsourcing. All those things we subscribe to, but when destruction happens, when infrastructure that was built with public funds is destroyed – remember once we destroy something someone must come back to rebuild it – taxpayers’ money will have to come back and build it at a higher cost.
Our people need water, electricity, sanitation, Wi-Fi network, and so on. We need to roll out those things that enhance our development going forth, but if we have to go back and repair the things that we had we don’t think it takes people forward because we are concerned about issues of inequality in society, issues of unemployment, and issues of poverty. DM
Photo: Zamdela, Sasolburg, Free State. Protesting residents of Zamdela run from police teargas. Photo Greg Marinovich / Storytaxi.com/ January 2013.