Protest Isn’t Dead

Five days after landing in Cape Town, we started work at the Research Unit. Two days later, we were messaged in the morning and told not to come in - student protests had shut down university campuses across South Africa, including that of the University of Cape Town. The same message came the next day, and the next. As a result, the first week and a half of work, we didn't exactly go to work.

None of this was all that surprising for me - I’d read about the growing tensions on the UCT campus (first, in April, over the removal of the Cecil Rhodes monument from campus, and again in September, over a scheduled 10% tuition increase), and was aware that the core issue driving these movements was the slow pace of racial transformations in the post-apartheid era. I wasn’t sure what to expect once I arrived on campus. Even once the protests started causing disruptions, I couldn’t have expected the level of impact they would have, which I think speaks to my low expectations for protests to garner meaningful change.

Certainly, civil disobedience has been a powerful tool throughout human history. But I feel that, in my lifetime, the power and meaning of protest has been greatly diluted. Bear with me for a moment as I explain where I’m coming from. Literally. I come from a city that, in recent years, has been host to poorly formed Olympic protests, post-secondary students trying to protect a grassy knoll on campus, and fans’ outrage and dismay at a cancelled Guns N' Roses concert and their team’s failure to win the Stanley Cup (twice). Ok, yes, those last two weren’t so much social movements or protests as they were just straight-up riots, but they fit into a broader proclivity to rash behaviour and an inability to thoughtfully express discontent without resorting to violence, destruction, and just general mayhem. Moreover, if conscientious observers (yes, I’d like to consider myself as such) conflate protests with riots, something is going terribly wrong. All of this in a city with some major issues worthy of mass action.

So, with that little bit of background, I hope you can understand my cynicism over what would or could come from the student protests. My only expectations were a lack of message discipline, for spoilers to turn a meaningful protest into an opportunity to inflict damage on public and/or private property, and for the inevitable return to normal, all efforts for naught. That this wasn’t the case has made for an enlightening experience.

I’ve been exposed to varying perspectives - positive and negative - on the basis, the conduct, and the result of the protests. By all means, it hasn’t been perfect; the protesters, the university, and the politicians all erred at one point or another. But I did notice a couple of remarkable things that caused my inner cynic to retreat and reassess. 

The first of these was that the protesters had one clear message which represented a list of coherent and not unreasonable demands and it remained that way. Another was that the very fact the protesters were young and/or students was never used to dismiss their action. Lastly, when the student’s primary demand was met with a freeze placed on tuition by the government, they didn’t stop; they continued to pursue the rest of the issues from their list of demands. This was protest as I’d never seen it before.

Following our return to the office, I came across an Op-Ed article in the Cape Times that quoted the South African poet N.P. van Wyk Louw: “Revolt is as necessary for a people as is loyalty. It is not even disastrous that a rebellion should fail - truly calamitous is that an entire generation would pass without protest.” I’m not entirely convinced. I’d argue, rather, that the truly calamitous is when protests of significant issues are lost to the crowd, either for the tone-deafness of those with the power to affect change or the inability - whatever the reason - of protesters to meaningfully gather and articulate their concerns. I feel lucky to have witnessed that this needn’t always be the case.

Sarah Spense in working with the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit in Cape Town South Africa.