Lunchtime calls to prayer mingle with struggle songs; a banner in the ANC colours shouts: ZUMA MUST GO. Above people lean out of office towers to wave as we march by; traffic is stopped and a taxi driver yells, “Eish! I really hate Zuma but you’re stopping my work!”. A tiny Indian lady in a red SACP golf shirt tells me she’s a card-carrying member of the Communist Party; her hammer and sickle beret well-worn and snug on her head (‘I got it in Russia years ago,’ she adds). An EFF supporter dances in anger. Afrikaans boere with beards and camo pants hang back, while a tall man wearing a yarmulke walks behind a woman, clad in black from head to toe, her eyes peeking at the action through a slit of material. Riot police stand guard, waiting for trouble that never happens.
On 7 April, I decided to join one of the many anti-Zuma protests being held around South Africa. This decision didn’t come easily though, and I agonised over whether I should go or not. I was under the impression that both the DA-led anti-Zuma protest in the Johannesburg CBD and the Save SA/OUTA march in Tshwane would be largely middle-class events. I was concerned that it would be a waste of time, and inevitably boil down to a bunch of whiney whities holding hands. I was also perturbed by what I saw on social media, and by what some people said to me, in person: calls by Joburg’s suburbanites for the day of action to be ‘kept local’ (read: I’m too scared to march in the CBD, also, quote unquote: ‘I might get stabbed’), racism disguised as anti-Zuma sentiment, middle-class apathy (‘it’s not going to make any difference’), people citing hectic workloads as it was a work day, and the ubiquitous, vicious threats of Kumbaya-ing.
On the morning of the march, I made up my mind: I was going to take a day’s leave and mission solo to the city of Tshwane for the Save SA/OUTA march, which started in Church Square, and ended at the Union Buildings (or, as a friend more aptly put, ‘the beating heart of The Beast’). In my mind, a non-partisan march to the seat of government was powerfully symbolic.
Standing under Paul Kruger, ripped-paper calls to decolonise still stuck to the statue’s base, I took in the crowds. To my relief, they weren’t all like me: white and privileged. Tens of thousands of us had come to Church Square for one reason: to send an undeniable message of no confidence to the president. It was uplifting and encouraging to see so many people gathered in one place with a common cause. From VF members to red berets; Jews to Muslims; communists to suits and ties – they were all there. Or, as a young guy standing behind me said to his friend, “Yoh. Imagine knowing that so many people hate you?”
But then something happened that made my heart sink. As I waited for the march to start I scanned social media on my phone, and I came across something that really dismayed me: people like me were unabashedly being shamed for joining the anti-Zuma protests. ‘Well I hope all of you protesting express the same outrage the next time there’s a service delivery protest’, read one post, and a retweet: ‘1,2,3,4, where were you for #FeesMustFall? 5,6,7,8, you could always emigrate’. Not to mention all the jibes about white people only doing something because their hedge funds are at risk.
One of the main reasons why I joined the march was because as long as Zuma continues to hold power, everyone suffers – privileged and marginalised alike. I firmly believe that we can’t just sit back and expect things to fix themselves – it may be too little, too late, but it’s something. I had to do something. Zuma has captured the entire country, and we face a potentially catastrophic future – I’m taking a stand, as pointless or as problematic as it may seem (depending on whom you talk to).
It’s true that, as people of privilege, we don’t show up when it’s most needed (Marikana, Kwezi, Esidimeni… the list is endless). This is wrong; we need to catch a big wake-up and all become more civically active. It’s also true that having white people in the crowd of protesters had a protective function: like a commentator on Twitter said: ‘If you go to protest and expect the police to protect you and not target you, you don’t realize the outrageous privilege in operation.’ What I do understand, is that white people need to utilise our privilege to keep putting maximum pressure on Zuma, and we cannot afford to be apathetic. We have to do something, and, better late than never, surely?
But it was the self-righteousness of the criticism that I took issue with; it was practically palpable through my phone screen on Friday. Yes, I didn’t deliver supplies during #FeesMustFall (I don’t fully support the movement); yes, true revolution only happens through the working class; yes, I don’t expect one march to lead to the instant impeachment of the president; and yes, I know that as a white person, I’m not colour blind. But I was genuinely surprised by how much sanctimonious judgement was launched at me for taking part in the march (an aside, I was equally surprised that many people who were launching said judgement weren’t aware of the fact that the Tshwane anti-Zuma protest was not DA-led).
Daily Maverick columnist Rebecca Mqamelo sums up my feelings on this far more eloquently than I ever could:
“The greatest triumph of divisive politics in this country is its ability to alienate people from one another, even when unity is in their best interests. It politically and physically paralyses us from ever stepping into action, because we will always find a reason why the fight ought to be different, better; why it ought not to be ours. There will always be a reason – to be fair, an often valid one, at that – why our differences should continue to separate us. There should have been protests when Marikana happened. But there weren’t. The reason we didn’t have protests during the student uprisings last year is because #FeesMustFall is still seen in the public eye as a movement largely only encompassing free tertiary education and quite simply, not everyone supports it.
But to use these instances as a reason not to act now – when it is so clear that the actions of our president have flouted the law and public interest, and – what is more concerning – set a precedent for this to be tolerated in the future – is short sighted at best; counterintuitive at worst. Here was the one instance where there was mutual interest across racial lines.
These protests are not about protecting white interest. They are not simply about one man losing his job. They are not about the value of our currency. Anyone who believes otherwise is being disingenuous about the situation at hand. In fact, critics have so successfully reduced and redefined #BlackMonday that it is now perceived to be one dimensional – and given the nature of social media and the way that it is used in politics today, what is perceived to be something, must be so.”
I’m not woke, and I don’t pretend to be. I try to be informed, and I try to take my time before forming an opinion on something – I like to look at every angle. And I’ve done this, and reached my own conclusions about politics, race, gender and sexuality. Some of those conclusions may indeed be half-woke, while others are not. I may even completely change my beliefs and opinions in time, who knows. And that’s totally ok.
A New York Times article entitled Earning the Woke Badge adds, ‘These days, it has become almost fashionable for people to telegraph just how aware they have become. And this uneasy performance has increasingly been advertised with one word: “woke” […] it means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.”
We all have the right to have an opinion, no matter how flawed or on-point it’s perceived to be, and, like Mqamelo suggests, I say perceived because all opinions are subjective and potentially problematic, mine included. As citizens of this country, we also have the right to exercise our beliefs as we see fit: whether it’s violently or peacefully, or whether it’s at a DA, #FeesMustFall, or Cosatu-led march. I want to reiterate that my argument is not whether or not wokeness is right or wrong; my issue is with the indignation, the judgement, and the high horses that sometimes accompanies it.
I’m not saying I’m perfect. I know that my politics can be seen as problematic – but, as long as I haven’t jumped to conclusions and reached opinions without trying to inform myself, they are my beliefs, woke or not.
As American philosopher, poet, and quite possibly, woke person Chriss Jami says, “Maturity is when you’re able to say, ‘It’s not just them. It’s me.”
Main image: The People’s March against President Jacob Zuma, Madiba Street, Tshwane, 7 April 2017 (Greg Nicolson).