SPEAKING against the snowy backdrop of Davos, where business and government leaders gathered for their annual jamboree this month, Trevor Manuel lamented to one or another international television channel’s camera that our protesters were inexplicably violent.
“Why burn down a school to get a road?” he asked in apparent reference to an older protest in which a mob destroyed civic amenities to press their case for the tarring of a road into their town.
But his broader question was about the spate of destructive public protest that has resulted in looting, arson and a very big dent in our international reputation.
This year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos happened as mobs trashed Sasolburg’s Zamdela township to protest against the proposed transfer of their affairs to the dysfunctional Ngwathe Municipality, which includes Parys.
Coming after the Marikana mine massacre and the violent strike by Western Cape farmworkers, the Zamdela riots created an uncomfortable background for President Jacob Zuma’s “All’s well in South Africa” campaign.
He tried to argue that strikes and protests were a normal part of life in the global village and that it was unfair to make headline news only of ours.
That is nonsense, of course. South African and world media put the protests in Greece on their front pages when they turned violent.
It is the largely disciplined strikes happening everywhere all the time that get ignored beyond the borders of the countries in which they take place.
In our case, it is the violence of our protesters and the brutality of the police response that gets us into the world headlines. The most recent evidence to Judge Ian Farlam’s Marikana commission reveals, for instance, that one miner killed by police – 26-year-old Thobile Mpumza from Mount Ayliff in the Eastern Cape – was shot 12 times.
That is headline news from any country that is not at war.
Back to Manuel’s question: why are our protests so violent?
The most obvious answer is because the government does not take our celebrated mechanisms for public debate and consultation seriously. Violence is the only way to get its attention.
We stage sometimes elaborate public hearings, but the contributions that do not match the government’s existing plans often get swept aside and only those which encourage the preferred official proposal get heard.
Former president Thabo Mbeki, at least, went through the motions of public consultation in the drafting of South Africa’s input to the African Peer Review Mechanism and in his imbizos.
Like most people, he tended to listen for the complaint he wanted to hear because he was ready to tackle it. But people did get to speak at an open microphone, their comments were recorded and there was an effort to check back a few months later on progress made.
Little of that happens now.
Parliament does seem to be reviving its own public consultation programme with a series of generic radio adverts, the latest featuring the voice of Olympic gold medallist Cameron van der Burgh urging us to tell our legislators what we think – apparently about anything at all.
But unless Max Sisulu, the speaker, has made some radical changes, this will remain an exercise in letting people speak rather than getting them heard.
Parliamentary hearings on the secrecy bill and on labour brokers are just two of many examples of a process designed to find endorsement rather than the dominant public view of an issue.
In many countries where citizens have a meaningful vote, as we do here, the media act as an effective channel for public opinion and heads sometimes roll purely on the basis of media exposure.
If that were true here, Zuma would never have been re-elected leader of his party, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga would long ago have been fired and Mining Minister Susan Shabangu and Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant would have cancelled whatever else they were doing to attend to the crises in their portfolios as soon as the miners and farm workers began to get restless.
Here, because accountability is to the internal structures of the ruling party and not the people it claims to represent, no amount of criticism by and through the media means anything to an elite protected by its liberation struggle credentials and cordons of high fences and police guards – unless it comes packaged with scenes of mayhem graphic enough to make the CNN news.
It may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory of sorts as the domino effect of their action shuts major shafts, but the miners at Marikana won an unheard of 22% wage hike and put their deplorable living conditions on the national and ANC agenda.
The Western Cape farm workers grabbed the headlines as they rampaged through picturesque Boland farming towns. Soon anyone with an interest in the news knew that they worked – with the government’s knowledge and sanction – for just R69 a day. It is not yet clear how many farmers have signed up for the new R105 rate that halted the violence, but think about it: that’s a 52% increase – and another strong endorsement for the power of violent protest.
And then the people of Zamdela burst onto the scene, saying they had not been asked about the proposed transfer of their area to another municipality that, they alleged, would not continue even the tiny free water and electricity allocations that helped to ease the misery of their lives.
At first no one listened, but once their protests hit international television screens they quickly had a minister promising to put the move on hold pending consultation.
Small children know that a smashed vase gets a lot more attention than a day of whining. That’s a life lesson we and our government should remember.
Brendan Boyle is editor of the Daily Dispatch